Israel always seems to be running short of friends — but Trump is not the ally it needs
Robert Fulford (National Post, Canada)
In May, 1939, the SS St. Louis, an ocean liner, set sail from Hamburg to Havana, carrying 937 passengers, most of them Jews hoping to escape Nazi persecution. That voyage went into history as a tragedy after three potential destinations — Cuba, the U.S. and Canada — refused to admit the St. Louis and sent the ship and its unhappy passengers back to Europe.
It docked finally at Antwerp, Belgium, and most of the passengers went to European countries, right into the path of the Holocaust. Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps killed 254 of those who were on the ship, victims of indifference in the countries they begged to enter.
The doomed voyage of the St. Louis became a melancholy story in Jewish history, told and re-told in books and on film, noted at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Hamburg Museum and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. No doubt many who know a little history recalled it as I did this week when President Donald Trump authorized American border guards to “turn back” (even the wording is just as it was in 1939) desperate refugees from Syria and six other countries.
After their icy friendship with the Obama administration and their prolonged mutual irritation with the European Union, Israelis may well be tempted to embrace Donald Trump’s invitation to a renewed U.S.-Israel relationship. After all, Trump is a powerful force in world affairs and comes equipped with backing from Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. He seems to be on genial terms with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And of course Israel always seems to be running short of friends.
With its existence so often at risk, Israel has learned to move carefully through the snakepit of the Middle East. That is not Trump’s way. He lives in the moment. He often makes decisions on the run, following his instincts, which he trusts.
His heartbreaking refusal to admit helpless refugees in transit was either an impulse or a plan he kept secret in order to heighten its impact on voters and the world — in either case an act of exceptional cruelty.
The Iraqi government, in theory America’s ally in the fight against ISIL, had to learn of Trump’s Muslim-banning from the U.S. media. He hadn’t warned even his alleged friends. Gen. John F. Kelly, the newly appointed secretary of Homeland Security, was still getting his briefing on the executive order when Trump signed it.
Seattle city councilwoman and socialist activist Kshama Sawant raises a fist over the crowd, as more than 1,000 people gather at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to protest President Donald Trump’s order that restricts immigration to the U.S., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in Seattle. President Trump signed an executive order Friday that bans legal U.S. residents and visa-holders from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. for 90 days and puts an indefinite hold on a program resettling Syrian refugees.
After the storm broke, when near-riots were breaking out at airports and demonstrators were carrying “Let Them In” signs, Trump changed his order, decreeing that people holding U.S. green cards would not be detained at the borders. From a leader who promised a better form of government, it was a striking example of arbitrary, off-the-cuff management. “Policy by thunderbolt,” commented Prof. Joseph Nye of Harvard.
And more than that, it violated Jewish custom. Dan Meridor, a former deputy prime minister and justice minister of Israel, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have condemned the new U.S. government’s entry ban on citizens from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. Meridor argued that the Jewish state should place Jewish values above expediency. He noted that “Jews have been leading the movement for civil rights and against racism for over 200 years, all over the world, in America and Europe. We should be guided by our moral compass. Jewish history and Jewish values should guide us, in line with our tradition.” The refugees, who had been vetted before going to America, turned out to have no civil rights, not even the right to know where they were being taken.
President Donald Trump, smiles while being introduced during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017. For the first time in decades, America’s oldest allies are questioning where Washington’s heart is. “The world is in trouble — but we’re going to straighten it out, ok? That’s what I do,” Trump said to an audience of religious and political leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Since Trump has decided to run a one-man government, his character has become a serious issue in world affairs and a serious question for Israelis contemplating diplomatic friendship. Judging by his speeches, his opinions and intentions can change without notice. He can hold two sharply contrary views on the same day, sometimes even during the same speech. He’s promised to cancel the agreement over nuclear arms with Iran. He’s also promised that he’ll rigidly enforce it.
He has already provoked a phenomenon that the Jerusalem Post calls “the crisis in Israeli-Mexican relations.” In an interview he praised Israel’s security wall and compared it to the wall he plans to build on America’s southern border to keep out Mexicans. Pleased, Netanyahu tweeted, “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” That angered the Mexican government, which it expressed as “deepest dismay, rejection and disappointment.” That led to anti-Semitic outbursts on Mexican social media and (according to the Jerusalem Post) “sowed fear and anger within Mexico’s Jewish community.”
Trump’s capricious style could be dangerous in relations with Israel. In a spontaneous speech about the two-state solution, it’s not hard to imagine, he could send everyone involved charging down a blind alley. And Israel must expect that if he offers help he will assume he’s in charge — either Trump himself or Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and, he has said, peace envoy on Israel-related issues. (Apparently he’s concerned about the Middle East. He and King Salman of Saudi Arabia have already talked about addressing Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities.”)
At the moment Trump’s position has made certain decisions more agreeable than before for the Israeli government. Within days of Trump’s inauguration Netanyahu approved the construction of about 2,500 new homes in Jewish West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements, the biggest such expansion in three years.
Under Obama, that would have produced sharp American criticism. But in the Trump era, both the White House and the State Department initially declined to comment. The European Union said the settlements decision threatened “the prospects for a viable two-state solution.” J Street, a liberal American Jewish organization, denounced the silence of Trump’s underlings. “The failure of the American government to criticize this announcement would mark an unprecedented break with 50 years of bipartisan opposition to settlement expansion.” J Street said this meant Netanyahu “has carte blanche from the new American President for unlimited settlement expansion.” Netanyahu and Trump have together given Jews everywhere another reason to argue about their state’s future. But on Thursday another Trumpian mind-change was announced: After further consideration, he decided to warn Netanyahu to hold off on settlement construction.
While campaigning, Trump promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. At that moment he brought to the foreground the most directly sensitive of all the many issues contributing to Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Islam and Judaism both consider the city a holy place and both feel it should be in their hands. The capture of the Western Wall in Jerusalem has been described as the most exultant moment for Israeli troops in the Six-Day War of 1967. Over the centuries, a religious dispute has calcified into a matter of politics and war.
AP Photo/Andrew HarnikPresident Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. The president and prime minister sought to mend their fractured relationship during their meeting, the first time they have talked face to face in more than a year.
Israel put its government and its parliament (Knesset) there but Palestinians have never recognized the legitimacy of that government or its right to be in Jerusalem. Many nations (including the U.S. and Canada) don’t locate there. Those embassies are in nearby Tel Aviv, out of deference to Palestinian feelings (that, and their frequent use of violence). Joe Clark, when briefly prime minister of Canada in 1979-1980, intended to fulfil a campaign promise to move Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem but reversed himself when he realized it would be monumentally troublesome.
Trump, promising to relocate the embassy, apparently was moved to please the Israelis. But word has come back from Israel that this might not be the right time. The Jordanian minister of information has said that moving the U.S. embassy now would be a catastrophe and probably a “gift to extremists.” It would “inflame the Islamic and Arabic streets.” Jordan, he said, would use all political and diplomatic means to prevent such a decision.
So Trump, delaying for a while, says he’s “studying it very long and hard” before reaching a decision. “I hate to do that because that’s not usually me,” Trump said. “Usually, I do what’s right.” Will he ever follow through on this promise? “Well, there’s certainly a chance of it, absolutely.” Everything that occurs him he’s likely to do, “absolutely.” I think he just likes that word.
Bernard-Henri Lévy, the renowned French philosopher, has offered Israelis a brief warning: “May the recipients of Trump’s sudden solicitude be as wary of this new friend as they are of their enemies. May they never forget that Israel’s fate is too serious a matter to be used as a pretext for an impulsive, uncultured adventurer to demonstrate his authority or supposed deal-making talents.”
Considering his performance in the earliest days of the Trump era, it’s absolutely reasonable to suggest that Trump is not a friend that Israel needs.