WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Presidential Forum last December, he proved again why the runaway success of his divisive campaign has upturned the expectations of so many.
A Republican hopeful seeking the support of a room full of pro-Israel Republicans, he doubted Israel’s willingness to make peace and declined to call Jerusalem the undivided capital of the Jewish state, a position that is held by most other candidates in his party.
But what most of the headlines coming out of the gathering highlighted was the manner in which Trump invoked what many consider to be offensive Jewish stereotypes, which included him saying, “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine.”
When the crowd erupted with boos over his answer to the Jerusalem question, Trump tried to reassure them. “Do me a favor, just relax,” he said. “You’ll like me very much, believe me.”
But following Trump’s strong Super Tuesday showing — in which he won seven of the 11 states that held GOP primary contests — people aren’t relaxing, and the question of what a Trump presidency would mean for Israel is becoming an increasingly pressing one for those who care about the country’s future.
While Trump’s domination of the primary process has thus far impelled a number of pundits to predict that the Republican primary could lead to a brokered convention, something that hasn’t happened since 1948, his overwhelming performance Tuesday gives his candidacy a head of steam toward potentially securing the nomination.
So where does the real-estate-magnate-turned-politician stand on the key issues relating to Israel?
While Trump has refused to offer specifics over how he would achieve his largest goals concerning the Jewish state, mainly securing a two-state accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians and preventing the Iranian regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he has repeatedly referred to himself as “totally pro-Israel.”
But there is a caveat when it comes to how far, and in what circumstances, he is willing to go in declaring himself a staunch ally of the Jewish state. Most notably, he has diverged from his party’s standard rhetoric on an emotionally charged foreign policy issue, by vowing to maintain neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
‘Let me be sort of a neutral guy’
Last month, Trump promised to “give it one hell of a shot” when asked what steps he would take to broker an elusive peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. “It’s probably the toughest agreement of any kind to make,” he said at an MSNBC town hall event in Charleston, South Carolina.
But pressed further by host Joe Scarborough over whether he felt either party was more at fault over the ongoing failure to reach an accord, Trump declined to take sides.
“You know, I don’t want to get into it, because… If I win, I don’t want to be in a position where I’m saying to you and the other side now says, ‘We don’t want Trump involved,'” he told Scarborough. “Let me be sort of a neutral guy. A lot of people have gone down in flames trying to make that deal, so I don’t want to say whose fault is it. I don’t think it helps.”
That answer created a firestorm over Israel policy in the Republican race and became fodder for a series of attacks from Trump’s rivals, including a testy exchange at the February 25 Republican presidential debate, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer pressed Trump, “How do you remain neutral when the US considers Israel to be America’s closest ally in the Middle East?”
“As president… there is nothing I would rather do than to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors generally,” Trump responded. “I think it serves no purpose to say that you have a good guy and a bad guy. Now, I may not be successful in doing it, it’s probably the toughest negotiation anywhere in the world of any kind. It doesn’t help if I start saying I’m very pro-Israel.”
Trump’s two biggest Republican challengers, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, subsequently attacked Trump, with Rubio calling Trump’s position “anti-Israel.”
“You cannot be an honest broker in a dispute between two sides in which one of the sides is constantly acting in bad faith,” Rubio said. “The Palestinian Authority has walked away from multiple efforts to make peace, very generous offers from the Israelis. Instead, here’s what they do. They teach their four-year-old children that killing Jews is a glorious thing.”
While Trump has not commented publicly on previous attempts by Israeli prime ministers to strike a deal, he has expressed skepticism over the sincerity of Israel’s declarations of wanting to achieve a two-state outcome.
“First thing you have to ask, do they both want to make it?” he said in a December 2015 interview with AP. “I have a real question as to whether both sides want to make it. I have a real question as to whether one side in particular whether or not they want to make it. I think one side actually would like a deal and I think the other one maybe doesn’t want a deal, to be honest.”
When pushed to say which side he was talking about, Trump wouldn’t specify. But later in the interview he said, “In my opinion, if Israel wants a deal I think a deal can be made.”
In that same interview, Trump said he had certain views on the conflict but would prefer to keep them private so as to not create any preconceived notions among the Israeli or Palestinian leadership. “We show our cards too much, so if I get into that, I don’t want to say this or that and then they’ll say, ‘Well Trump is biased one way or the other,'” he said.
And yet, Trump has also expressed skepticism over the possibility of achieving a two-state solution, given the conditions of the conflict and the need for any agreement to be sustainable over time. He has also suggested that hostility between the two peoples was becoming an increasing obstacle to bridging differences, while also hinting at what he considers the root of the conflict.
“A lot of people say an agreement can’t be made, which is okay. I mean, sometimes agreements can’t be made. Not good, but, you know, you have both sides really, but one side in particular, growing up and learning that these are the worst people,” he told Scarborough at the town hall event. “I was with a very prominent Israeli the other day. He says it’s impossible, because the other side has been trained from the time they’re children to hate Jewish people.”
Trump has said he would know within his first six months in office whether a deal can be made.
Would not ‘rip up’ Iran deal, but would ‘police’ it
Trump has been an ardent critic of the nuclear deal struck between Iran and the US-led P5+1 group of world powers. A day after the deal was inked, in July 2015, Trump told Katy Tur of NBC News that President Barack Obama negotiated the agreement “from desperation” and that it was “terrible.”
The deal was implemented in January and lifted a spate of crippling oil and financial sanctions on Iran, releasing more than $100 billion in frozen assets.
“First of all, we’re giving them billions of dollars in this deal, which we shouldn’t have given them. We should have kept the money,” he said. “Second of all, we have four prisoners over there. We should have said, ‘Let the prisoners out. They shouldn’t be over there.'”
The prisoners, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, have since been released, in exchange for seven people imprisoned or charged in the United States, just before sanctions were officially lifted.
‘You know the Iranians are going to cheat,’ he said. ‘They’re great negotiators and you know they’re going to cheat’
Trump insisted that any deal with the Islamic Republic should include a provision that allows inspectors to have anytime, anywhere access to all nuclear sites in Iran. “You know the Iranians are going to cheat,” he said. “They’re great negotiators and you know they’re going to cheat.”
Despite saying that “never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran and I mean never,” Trump has differed from his GOP rivals in saying he would not “rip up” the deal were he to become president. Rather, he has vowed to “police” the deal to ensure that Iran does not violate the terms of the agreement.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘We’re going to rip up the deal.’ It’s very tough to do when you say, ‘We’re ripping it up,'” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd on the Sunday morning talk show “Meet The Press.”
“You know, I’ve taken over some bad contracts. I buy contracts where people screwed up and they have bad contracts,” he continued. “But I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. As bad as the contract is, I will be so tough on that contract.”
Trump is known for not being sparing with invective toward those he dislikes or disagrees with. Obama has been no exception, and Trump has repeatedly attacked the president over the nuclear accord with Iran and what he calls Obama’s poor treatment of Israel.
“You look at what he’s done to Israel, with just this Iran deal, which is such a terrible deal. He’s been the worst thing that’s ever happened to Israel,” Trump said last week in an interview with Fox News. “Israel is so important. What Obama has done to Israel is a disgrace.”
Ties to Israel and the Jewish community
Perhaps Donald Trump’s deepest tie to the Jewish community comes from his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism in 2009 before marrying Jared Kushner.
In an interview with Vogue magazine published last year, the billionaire businessman’s daughter revealed that she observes Shabbat and keeps a kosher diet, something Trump joked about when he addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition last December, saying he could no longer contact his daughter on Saturdays.
Trump has also involved himself in Israel’s internal politics, which included him shooting a commercial in support of Netanyahu’s 2013 re-election campaign. Trump has referred to Netanyahu on multiple occasions as “a good friend.”
He also often boasts of his connections to the State of Israel, in what may be attempts to reassure his audience of his pro-Israel bona fides.
After being attacked by his opponents at the latest Republican presidential debate, Trump said: “I was the grand marshal down Fifth Avenue a number of years ago for the Israeli Day Parade, I have very close ties to Israel. I’ve received the Tree of Life Award and many of the greatest awards given by Israel.”
But Trump has also clashed repeatedly with American Jewish organizations throughout the campaign, many of whom condemned his call to temporarily ban Muslim entry to the United States and who recently urged him to repudiate the endorsement of extremists, white supremacists and noted anti-Semites, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Farrakhan, who has a long history of anti-Semitism, recently praised Trump for his refusal to take “Jewish money.”
After Trump failed to unequivocally disavow Duke’s support and told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he didn’t “know anything” about his controversial backer, the Anti-Defamation League stepped in to help out. It released a candidates’ guide to racists.