In 1992, Marc Zell, who had just established an Israeli branch of Republicans Abroad, publicly rebelled against the party. He felt George Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, was an anti-Semite who treated Israel like a doormat. Rather than voting for a second Bush term, Zell endorsed Bill Clinton.
“I’m sorry I did, because Clinton turned out to be a disaster for Israel. But at that time Clinton was saying he wasn’t interested in foreign policy,” Zell recalled this week.
The 2016 presidential campaign also presented a dilemma for Zell. During the Republican primaries, Zell supported Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and argued that Donald Trump lacked the temperament to be president. But now, even as the real-estate developer’s campaign attracts growing controversy, Zell is endorsing Trump.
In December, Zell declared: “The voters understand that to lead the United States, you need a person who knows more than how to sell products, with all due respect to Donald Trump, and everything he has achieved in his career… In my opinion, he cannot be president of the United States.”
Eight months and a Republican presidential nomination for The Donald later, Zell, an international lawyer based in Jerusalem, sings a different tune. Still not very fond of Trump’s often brash demeanor, Zell backs the candidate and defends his choice by differentiating between Trump’s public persona and his policies.
What turns a critic into a staunch supporter?
At first, Zell admitted in an interview, he wrestled with the New York billionaire’s unexpected success. “I said, after having attacked him in the primaries, how can I possibly represent him and the party to the media and elsewhere?”
Zell went so far as to offer his resignation — both as chairman of Republicans in Israel and as vice president of Republicans Overseas. But the boards of both organizations rejected it. “That forced me to have to come to terms with the situation.”
Zell, who grew up outside of Washington, D.C. and immigrated to Israel in 1986, explained his dramatic change of heart by citing the Kübler-Ross model, which delineates several stages of grief.
“I went through a process that was not dissimilar to a grieving process: You deny, then you get angry and depressed, and eventually you come to acceptance,” he said. “And as I went through that process, I came to learn a few things that helped change my mind.”
The fact that Trump garnered more votes than any Republican primary candidate in history, winning 37 states and knocking 16 other candidates from the race, tops Zell’s long list of reasons for his about-face. “First and foremost, the people have spoken, and they have spoken in an unequivocal fashion,” he told The Times of Israel in his office on 15th floor of a central Jerusalem high-rise, a “Trump 2016” pin shining on his lapel.
Indicating his change of heart is no case of political expediency but rather one of genuine, albeit new-found conviction, Zell passionately advocated for a Trump presidency.
For one thing, he hails Trump’s support for Israel. While initially he worried about the candidate’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he now says he no longer has any doubts that Trump will be better for Jerusalem than Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Specifically, Zell cited the Republican platform, which no longer mentions a two-state solution. “It was historic in its departure from more watered-down Israel planks, like the Democrats have now,” he said.
Himself a resident of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, Zell deemed it “brilliant” that the GOP abandoned calls for Palestinian statehood. “I’m against unrealistic policies. I am against trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. There’s no context in which a two-state solution in today’s world would work.”
For another, Zell also gushed over Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, saying he knows Pence personally and can attest to his bona fide pro-Israel credentials. Pence’s nomination was unexpected and speaks massively in favor of Trump, Zell argued, echoing the feelings of many Republican Jews in the United States.
Trump also deserved much credit for bringing several subjects into the election spotlight that otherwise would have remained off the radar, such as immigration, America’s trade agreements, and its relationship to NATO, Zell continued. “Here’s a guy who, just by the unorthodox manner of campaigning, introduced these topics into public debate. That’s fantastic. This shows already his ability to influence public opinion and to change the order of things.”
Trump uniquely recognized the electorate’s boiling anger over the political establishment, added Zell, a graduate of Princeton and the University of Maryland. “He understood this, either instinctively or deliberately, and he tapped into that groundswell of discontent and rode it to (nomination) victory.”
This has nothing to do with populism or demagoguery, insisted Zell, a father of eight and a grandfather of 14. “The system needs to be shaken up, both domestically and in terms of foreign policy.”
Another factor that tipped the scale in Trump’s favor is the identity of that Democratic opponent. Hillary Clinton, Zell said, “has got all this experience, it’s true. But she lacks judgement.” Zell described the former secretary of state as incompetent, dishonest and corrupt. And he accused the Clinton family of nothing less than raping the US public, citing controversies involving the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton’s lucrative public speaking, Chelsea Clinton’s employment, and others: “It’s a family business, and it’s been very successful. But they’re coming back, these influence peddlers, to Washington, and they’re going to take advantage, they’re going to rape the American people again,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
When asked if he really meant to use that word, Zell acknowledged that it was strong language but stuck by it.
Two Donald Trumps
If opposition to Clinton is to be expected for a Republican, how does Zell, who not too long ago expressed concern over both Trump’s character and some of his substantive policies, defend the Republican nominee amid the ongoing controversies surrounding him?
Zell’s answer: Trump’s ostensibly outrageous policy proposals might not be formulated very elegantly, but behind them always stands a sound policy. (The interview took place on Tuesday, before the eruption of the firestorm surrounding comments by Trump seen by some as a call to violence against Clinton.)
‘There are really two Donald Trumps: the public persona, which works as marketing tactic. And then there’s a Donald Trump that knows how to run a business’
For instance, one of the things that shook Zell out of his “grieving process” were several discussions he had with senior Republicans who also initially opposed Trump but then got to meet the man and eventually embraced him. One senator told Zell how surprised he was to find Trump was very well prepared for a meeting with him, listened carefully and asked intelligent questions. “This is completely at odds with Trump’s public persona,” Zell said.
Indeed, there are really two Donald Trumps, Zell posited. “There’s the public persona, which works as a branding, marketing, campaigning tactic. And then there’s a Donald Trump that knows how to run a business. He had his failures, he had his successes, but you don’t run a business by not listening. You got to listen to your advisers, you got to make intelligent decisions. That’s what he does.”
For instance, he argued, Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States — or “vet them,” as Zell says — is merely a copy of what is going in Israel on a daily basis. “We profile. When we see a Muslim coming to Israel or leaving Israel, they’re subject to special interrogations to make sure they’re okay. It’s not politically correct at all in the Western context. But it works.”
The Obama administration is unwilling to tackle the issue head on, which is jeopardizing American lives, Zell charged. “That’s just wrong. He [Trump] is saying: fix it. He’s right. You don’t like the way he says it. I’m sorry. He doesn’t say it in a particularly graceful way. But he’s right about singling out this particular group of people and checking them especially to make sure that they don’t have terrorist intentions.”
Islam is not just another religion, Zell went on, arguing that it is “no accident” that over 90 percent of recent terrorist attacks were committed by Muslims. “I didn’t like the tone of the statement. But he’s right about Muslims. He’s right about the need to protect the homeland against this threat.”
By refusing to speak about “radical Islam,” the Obama administration does not even acknowledge the nature of the problem, and has thus “contributed, fundamentally, to the existence of this problem,” Zell thundered. With his comments about Muslims, Trump was merely stating a simple truth, he added. “Now you don’t like the way he articulates his views? I’ll tell you something: I’m not that happy about the ways in which he articulates his views sometimes. But he made these issues fundamentally part of the debate.”
Zell argues similarly about Trump’s promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. It is debatable whether Trump is talking about a physical wall or a symbolic one, but the idea behind his proposal — the need to stop the influx of illegal immigrants — is praiseworthy.
“It’s a beautiful image,” Zell said about the proposed border barrier. “This guy, Trump, has an unbelievable ability to brand himself and to market his persona. It’s not necessarily easy to hear sometimes, but he does it, and he does it effectively.”
Zell’s line of defense for all of Trump’s scandals works according to the same principle: It might not sound pretty, but the guy is smarter than you think.
“I wouldn’t talk that way,” he said, referring to Trump’s often offensive rhetoric. “It’s not my style. I don’t like it. But there’s the other Trump. The cool-headed guy that does his homework, the behind-the-scenes decisionmaker. That’s the Trump I didn’t know.”
What about scores of senior Republicans who are jumping ship, denouncing Trump and in some cases even endorsing Clinton? Zell, who has never met the GOP nominee, estimated that many of those who initially supported other candidates still have not completed the grieving process. Most of them will eventually come around as well, he predicted.
Disunity in the Israeli Republican camp
Meanwhile, Zell is working on persuading Republicans in Israeli to vote for the party’s candidate, launching a get-out-the-vote campaign unprecedented in scope. Some 50 people, paid staff and volunteers, are currently trying to convince the undecided, he said.
Most Republicans in Israel initially favored Rubio or Ted Cruz but will vote for Trump come November, Zell predicted. In past elections, between 80 and 85 percent of Israeli-Americans supported the GOP candidate (as opposed to Jews living in America, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats,) though he expects the number to be lower than usual this time. “There are still some who need coaxing,” he said.
One of them might be Zell’s co-chair at the Republicans’ Israel branch, Kory Bardash.
Asked about his view on Trump, Bardash provided The Times of Israel with the following statement: “I am cognizant of the fact that there are Republican voters who are ambivalent about Mr. Trump being the nominee. However, I would strongly recommend they go out and vote for Republican House and Senate candidates. When it comes to economic and foreign policy, having a Republican Congress can ensure improved legislation. Too many Democratic elected officials have shown hostilities toward free market economics and Israel.”
The animus for Clinton may give the GOP a common cause, but, as evidenced by Bardash’s non-endorsement, concerning their own party’s candidate, some Israeli Republicans have yet to complete the grieving process.