Threats to the Pro-Israel Consensus in the New GOP, and What Must be Done to Preserve It

Written by Alexander J. Segal on

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Introduction

Over the past 50 years, the Republican Party went from a mixed bag on support for Israel to an organization where support for Israel is the mainstream position. However, over the contentious Republican Primary, we have seen some disturbing signs that the Republican consensus on Israel is fraying at the margins. In this post, we will look at how the Republican Party became the preeminent pro-Israel Party, and what must be done to keep it that way.

The GOP Becomes the Pro-Israel Party

Those who only started following politics in recent years may be under the impression that the mainstream of the Republican Party has always been staunchly pro-Israel. However, as Tevi Troy explained in exhaustive detail in Commentary on December 1, 2015, the GOP's path to becoming a staunchly pro-Israel party was long and arduous [link].1 It was as recent as January of 1993 that there was a Republican Secretary of State (under President George H.W. Bush), James Baker, who had exclaimed unabashedly, “F—- the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway.” In 1996, noted anti-Semite Patrick Buchanan carried four states en route to a second place finish in the Republican Presidential Primaries.

However, even with prominent GOP figures who were and are hostile to Israel, the trajectory of the Republican Party regarding Israel has been positive over time. President Richard Nixon, while certainly an anti-Semite in private, was a generally good President for Israeli interests during his tenure. The great Ronald Reagan unprecedented support for Israel during the 1980s, spurring a new generation of pro-Israel conservatives led in the 1990s by those such as then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, as Troy detailed in the following passage from his article, perhaps the most credit for the evolution of the GOP in its support for Israel should go to the administration of George W. Bush from 2001-2009:

“Bush gave [then-Prime Minister] Sharon the leeway he needed to defend Israeli lives. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tells an instructive story in this regard. Following one Palestinian attack, Fleischer handed Bush what he called “typical” talking points that called for “both sides to refrain from violence.” Bush looked at the talking points and responded, “No, don't say that. Just say this: 'Israel has a right to defend itself.' ” According to Fleischer, Bush's preferred response “sent shock waves through the bureaucracy,” which was used to deliberately evasive, morally nebulous suggestions of “even-handedness.”“

President Bush's leadership on Israel-along with principled leaders in his administration such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld-set a new tone on Israel for the Republican Party. Far from the dark days of James Baker's tenure as Secretary of State that ended just eight years before the younger Bush took the oath of office, support for Israel among prominent Republicans was suddenly the expectation. To be sure, there were notable exceptions such as Ron Paul in his two Presidential runs in 2008 and 2012, but by in large a new generation of GOP leaders rendered Baker, Buchanan, and prominent figures in the so-called paleoconservative movement anachronisms of a bygone era. During the Obama Administration, leading Republicans could always be counted on in words and (usually) deeds to oppose President Obama's and John Kerry's appeasement of the enemies of America and Israel and their uncommon hostility toward the governments headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As Troy reports in the end of his article, “80 percent [of self-identified Republicans] now tell pollsters they support the Jewish state.”

Storm Clouds on the Horizon

While Troy's argument illustrates a triumph in the evolution of the Republican Party toward a posture that is unambiguously pro-Israel, there were already storm clouds on the horizon at the time of its publication in December calling into question whether Lady Macbeth was correct when she said “what's done cannot be undone.”

The heavy majority of candidates in the Republican Presidential Primaries were unambiguously pro-Israel. In my series of Candidate Profiles [see blog], I seldom found reason to be wary of a candidate's support for Israel. In fact, the candidates who ultimately finished second and third in delegates, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio respectively, staked out positions in support of Israel that often went beyond even those taken by the second Bush administration.

Yet, these candidates were swept away by the now presumptive-Republican nominee, Donald Trump. As I will detail, there are reasons in terms of policy to be concerned about the effects of a potential Trump administration with regard to Israel. However, regardless of whether the next President is Trump or the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, the orange wind that swept through the GOP has unearthed a geyser of anti-Semitism and unbridled hostility toward Israel that one could have been forgiven for thinking was buried when Pat Buchanan-who has unfortunately returned to some notoriety with his enthusiastic endorsement of Trump-faded into a place somewhere betwixt an irrelevancy and forgotten. Let us examine each of these issues closely and then assess what comes next for the GOP with regard to Israel-policy.

Red Flags: Trump's Shifty Positions on Israel

For this post, my primary focus will be on the disgusting vitriol from many of Trump's core-supporters toward the Jewish people and the Jewish state. However, it is important to take note of some of the problematic aspects of Trump's positions-insofar as they can be discerned-with regard to his positions on Israel.

First, Trump has demonstrated alarming ignorance of world affairs, foreign policy, and the role of executive. He is the presumptive nominee who seemed unsure of what the nuclear triad is in a nationally televised debate, slandered personally George W. Bush and his entire administration by parroting leftist conspiracy theories about 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq War, and insisted in a debate that he would order the men and women of America's armed services to commit war crimes. He chose as the venue for his ballyhooed major foreign policy speech The Center for the National Interest, a think-tank that is known only slightly more for its support for Vladimir Putin than its thinly-veiled hostility toward Israel.

With regard to Israel specifically, Trump has been (at best) hesitant to call for the termination of President Obama's ill-fated Iran Deal, instead focusing on his concern that John Kerry simply did not strike a good enough “deal.” Perhaps most disturbing, Trump has repeatedly called for the Israelis and the Palestinians to be treated “equally” in negotiations, a position that has been taken at times by the likes of the European Union and the Obama Administration. Trump states that a “deal” would be his “toughest deal,” implicitly comparing it to real estate transactions…. For these positions, he was pilloried with good cause by Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in multiple GOP debates (and even by Clinton for “neutrality”). In his speech on Israel before AIPAC, he referred to “Palestine” as a “state” on multiple occasions, for which he was again lampooned by Cruz.

If Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States, we can only hope that he surrounds himself with advisers who understand the importance of American support for Israel. Despite his ignorance of world affairs and Israel's situation in the Middle East, with the Republican Party mostly at his disposal, he will have no shortage of effective thinkers on the issue to choose from if he so desires. Nevertheless, it can only be seen as a great loss that bold thinkers on foreign policy who stand unequivocally with Israel-such as Senators Cruz and Rubio and the former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush-were passed over for someone for whom there are more questions than answers regarding his posture toward Israel and the greater region.

The Dark Underbelly of Trump's Support

Whether Trump wins or loses, there are reasons to hope that U.S. policy toward its closest ally will improve relative to the last seven years. However, Trump's rise, win or lose, will leave an indelible mark on the GOP. One trend that has been getting notice as of late is the prevalence of unsavory supporters among his ranks whom he and his team have often been slow to denounce. Some of these incidents have been high-profile, such as was Trump's decision to play coy when asked about receiving the endorsement of David Duke-noted white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. There are also figures such as Ann Coulter, whose support Trump has welcomed even after she complained about the candidates in one of the early GOP debates allegedly pandering to “f—-ing Jews” by expressing solidarity with Israel.

But more troubling perhaps is what appears to be the bubbling anti-Semitism among Trump supporters online. Numerous writers who have been critical of Trump have been subjected to anti-Semitic vitriol through emails, social networking, and even from certain allegedly conservative outlets. Regardless of the outcome of 2016, the dregs of Trump's supporters may well be a long-term problem for the GOP.

Besides the return of the Buchananite paleoconservatives, a new movement colloquially called the alt-right has come to the fore. The alt-right is vocally pro-Trump in large part because of his perceived willingness to violate social taboos and challenge political correctness. While I agree that excessive political correctness-in context-is a serious problem, the alt-right veils its racism and anti-Semitism in its opposition to political correctness, and viciously denouncing in often racial and/or anti-Semetic terms, any who dare make the distinction between excessive political correctness and basic civility and human decency.

One of the most vocal about the problem has been conservative writer Ben Shapiro, formerly of Breitbart (now one of the largest outlets for the alt-right) before he resigned due to their handling of Trump coverage, and now of the Daily Wire. In April, Shapiro chronicled anti-Semitic and otherwise abusive Tweets he got from Trump supporters (and likely some Trump-bots) in response inflammatory Tweets such as pitching his article “Why I'd Vote Cruz On Super Tuesday” [link].2 Shapiro expanded on his thoughts on May 18 on the National Review Online [link].3 Shapiro, while noting that the majority of Trump's supporters are not anti-Semitic, argues compellingly that “Trump's nomination has drawn anti-Semites from the woodwork.” Stating that Trump himself is not an anti-Semite (also noting that his eldest daughter is a convert to Judaism), Shapiro does argue that Trump has been “happy to channel the support of anti-Semites to his own ends.” For example, Shapiro cites the vicious anti-Semitic response from Trump fans that journalist Julia Ioffe received on Twitter for a not-entirely-favorable profile of Trump's wife in GQ. In response to the virulent abuse that Ioffe was subjected to, Trump demurred claiming to not know what happened and having no message for his “fans” while his wife blamed Ioffe for provoking her abusers.

Shapiro's former employer, Breitbart, recently ran a headline attacking Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who has been publicly recruiting an alternative to Trump and Clinton, a “renegade Jew.” To be sure, the column itself criticized Kristol was by David Horowitz-most definitely not either anti-Semitic or anti-Israel-for not supporting Trump in what Horowitz passionately believes is the best for Israel. Right or wrong, that is a position that can be argued among reasonable people. However, Breitbart's headline was as deliberately bizarre as it was provocative, and it was far from the first instance (see Breitbart's attacks on Shapiro) where the publication has whistled to the conspiratorial anti-Semitic sensibilities of the so-called alt-right.

Beyond Trump

Beyond Trump, there are two recent incidents I would like to highlight as unbecoming of leaders in the party that prides itself on standing with Israel.

First, Eli Lake of Bloomberg reported that the Charles Koch Institute, funded by well-known (and anti-Trump) conservative donors Charles and David Koch, hosted Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, known for their 2006 anti-Israel polemic The Israel Lobby.4 If that was not enough, Lake notes that Mearsheimer spoke at a Code Pink conference in 2011. While Walt and Mearsheimer are free to spread their slander wherever they are invited, it seems to me to be a poor look for the Koch Institute to give them a platform without, at the very least, a dissenting view being offered at the same event.

Second, Nahal Toosi of Politico reported on James Baker being invited before Congress to testify before Congress about “Examining America's Role in the World.”5 By Politico's account, many of the questions directed to Baker, including by Marco Rubio, were implicitly asking for his perspective on some of Trump's more outlandish foreign policy pronouncements. However, noting Baker's baggage, I would ask why the Senate Foreign Relations committee-run by Republicans at least until January of 2017-would seek out the expertise of Baker of all people. Certainly there are experienced foreign policy figures-even other former Republican Secretaries of State-who could be called upon and who have not made a career of parroting anti-Semitic tropes and slandering Israel. There must come a point where a career-long track record in vileness at least makes the Senate consider calling less objectionable foreign policy “experts.”

Conclusion: The Future of the GOP Regarding Israel

The transformation of the GOP with regard to Israel over the past 50 years has been one of the great accomplishments of the Party in the modern era. However, it is important to remember that the GOP did not marginalize anti-Semites and those otherwise hostile to Israel through silence and acquiescence. Rather, it was through the bold and courageous leadership of figures such as Reagan, Cheney, G.W. Bush, and today of Rubio, Cruz, and others. Regardless of the small army of Trump-backing online trolls and anti-Semites, the vast majority of the Republican Party and the American people stand with Israel. But we cannot take this position for granted. It is crucial for America's political leaders-especially those in the GOP which prides itself on standing with Israel-to denounce garden variety anti-Semitism and the cloak and dagger cult of anti-Zionism. That is the duty of elected Republicans across the country. It would be a boon to the future of the party if the presumptive Presidential nominee showed the same vigor in challenging the savageness of a vocal minority of his supporters as he did in endeavoring to link Ted Cruz's father to the Kennedy assassination.

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  1. Troy, Tevi, “How the GOP Went Zionist,” Commentary, (Dec. 1, 2015), available at https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/gop-went-zionist/
  2. Shapiro, Ben, “The Anti-Semites Are Out In Force For Trump,” The Daily Wire, (Mar. 1, 2016), available at http://www.dailywire.com/news/3783/anti-semites-are-out-force-trump-ben-shapiro
  3. Shapiro, Ben, “Donald Trump's Anti-Semetic Supporters,” National Review Online, (May 1, 2016), available at http://www.nationalreview.com/article/435527/anti-semitism-donald-trump-right-nationalism-white-supremacism
  4. Lake, Eli, “Koch Brothers Give a Megaphone to the Anti-Israel Fringe,” (May 17, 2016), available at http://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-05-17/koch-brothers-give-a-megaphone-to-the-anti-israel-fringe
  5. Toosi, Nahal, “Rubio enlists James Baker to knock Trump,” (May 12, 2016), available at http://www.politico.com/story/2016/05/marco-rubio-james-baker-donald-trump-223142