Trump or Biden on Israel?

It's no contest.

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SOURCETom Dispatch

Recently, I attended a demonstration called by groups opposing the carnage in Gaza, where eight months of air, ground, and sea attacks by the Israeli Defense Forces have leveled entire quadrants of cities and killed more than 36,000 Palestinians. Many of the participants, justly outraged by the ongoing mass murder triggered by Hamas’s October 7th terrorist massacre, bitterly criticized President Biden over his continuing support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war.

Asked about the likely choice in November between Biden and Donald Trump, the consensus among the demonstrators was that they wouldn’t vote for “Genocide Joe,” and that there was nothing to choose from between Biden and Trump when it comes to Middle East policy. Some would simply stay home, while some might vote for the Green Party or another third party, and even those who might eventually pull the lever for Biden pledged to vote “uncommitted” in any primary to “send a message to the White House.”

Still, no matter the horrors — and they are horrors — of Gaza and of the low-intensity war Israel is also waging in the occupied West Bank, and despite Israel’s regular artillery and bombing runs against targets in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and even Iran, those who argue that there’s no difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to Israel are deeply mistaken.

Biden represents a long-standing mainstream allegiance to Israel as an American ally, but — like other former presidents, including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — he disdains Israel’s extremist, pro-settler far right. And as he learned during the Obama years, President Biden is all too aware that Netanyahu has long explicitly thrown in his lot with the Republican Party and, more specifically, with Donald Trump as its standard-bearer.

Trump, on the other hand — ever transactional, with distinctly bizarre attitudes toward American Jews and, in particular, Jewish supporters of Israel — has gone out of his way to cultivate his connection to Netanyahu and the most extreme wing of Israel’s governing parties. To placate Christian Zionists, who comprise a substantial chunk of his base, he’s donned the cloak of an uber-Zionist himself. During his administration, in fact, he named his son-in-law Jared Kushner as his Middle East “czar.” Kushner has lifelong ties to Netanyahu, who even slept in his bedroom when Kushner was young. (“Jared Kushner once lent Benjamin Netanyahu his bed,” is how the Jerusalem Post put it.)

So, while pro-Palestinian demonstrators are focusing their anger on Biden, they may, all too ironically, find themselves targeted for deportation by Donald Trump, should he win a second term in office. “One thing I do is, any student that protests, I throw them out of the country,” was his comment on the Gaza protests. “You know, there are a lot of foreign students. As soon as they hear that, they’re going to behave.”

Trump’s record on Israel-Palestine

As a television showman, playboy, and real-estate wheeler-dealer, Trump wasn’t exactly an expert on Middle Eastern politics when he lurched into his presidential campaign in 2016. His views on Israel were then, at best, a work-in-progress, leading hard-core supporters of that country to describe him as “confused.” But having won the nomination, he quickly staked out a radical-right position on the topic. The 2016 GOP platform, in fact, shattered a long-standing bipartisan consensus by coming out against a two-state solution in which the Palestinians would, sooner or later, get a state of their own on territory occupied by Israel. “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier,” declared that platform, a position that dovetailed perfectly with the views of Israel’s ultra-right, including the ruling Likud Party, that the occupied West Bank — which they refer to as “Judea and Samaria” — belongs to Israel alone because of an ancient biblical heritage.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s principal advisers on Israel were the previously obscure lawyer David M. Friedman, who had helped Trump wriggle out of his casino bankruptcies, and Jason Greenblatt, a real-estate lawyer with the Trump Organization. Friedman would eventually become Trump’s ambassador to Israel and Greenblatt, a senior White House official. “If Donald Trump wins the White House, he’ll probably be the first U.S. president whose top adviser on Israel used to do guard duty at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank armed with an M-16 assault weapon,” wrote The Forward, a leading Jewish newspaper, referring to Greenblatt. Both were outspoken supporters of expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank and allowing Israel to formally annex part of it. Friedman had also served as president of the nonprofit American Friends of Beth El (AFBE), which had lavishly funded a religious Jewish outpost near Jerusalem in Palestinian territory.

Both of them, along with Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, promoted moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which President Trump indeed did. That move, supported by radical-right Republicans, many ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Christian Zionists, was a calculated provocation of the Palestinians, and would be condemned by the Pope, the United Nations, and much of the world.

Throughout his presidency, Trump made it clear that he supported a radical revision of U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestine issue. In 2019, in a move that drew outrage and derision, Trump signed an order recognizing Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights, seized in 1967. And later that year, in a political “gift” to Netanyahu, Trump discarded decades of U.S. policy by declaring that Israel’s massive project to build illegal settlements in the West Bank did not violate international law. “We’ve recognized the reality on the ground,” was the way Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it.

In addition, the president unilaterally shut down the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, while halting $200 million in direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and $300 million owed to the United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), which supports Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

Trump’s wrecking-ball approach to the Middle East culminated in January 2020 when he and Netanyahu jointly released a “Middle East peace plan” hammered out by Kushner, Friedman, Greenblatt, and Avi Berkowitz (plucked from the Kushner Companies with zero experience in the region). Among other provisions, it green-lit Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and a web of illegal settlements that house hundreds of thousands of Jewish occupiers. “Israel does not have to wait at all,” said Friedman. “We will recognize it.” Released with great fanfare, Trump’s peace plan drew worldwide ridicule and condemnation, including by the European Union, the Arab League, and Haaretz, a liberal Israeli daily, which termed it “the joke of the century.”

Finally, signaling that Trump and his family continue to have a neo-colonial view of the region as turf for future hotel-building, in the midst of the current war in Gaza Kushner proposed expelling its Palestinian population and constructing a seaside resort there. “Gaza’s waterfront property could be very valuable,” he said. “It’s a little bit of an unfortunate situation there, but from Israel’s perspective, I would do my best to move the people out and then clean it up.”

Moving the people out, of course, is a euphemism for exactly what Israeli settlers have been doing to the Palestinians since 1948.

Biden’s lifelong ties to Zionism

Joe Biden’s constant reiteration of his support for the “ironclad” U.S.-Israeli alliance shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed his career since 1973 as a senator, vice president, and president. “I am a Zionist,” he proclaimed last December at a White House Hanukkah gathering, noting that he’s been saying the same thing for decades. He’s long claimed that his support for Israel derives in part from his father’s World War II-era understanding of the Nazi Holocaust. He’s repeatedly cited — not always accurately — his 1973 meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir as convincing him that Israel was a vital refuge for Jews worldwide. Moreover, Biden has long had the backing of Israel’s American supporters and donors. According to Reuters, citing data from Open Secrets, during his 36 years in the Senate (1973-2009), Biden was the number one recipient of donations from pro-Israeli groups.

However, unlike Trump, Kushner, Friedman, and Greenblatt, closely tied to Netanyahu and Israel’s extreme right, Biden (and the Democrats more broadly) have been far more closely allied with mainstream and center-left Israelis. They have, in fact, been engaged in a low-level Cold War with Netanyahu ever since his rise to prominence in the 1990s. In 1996, for instance, President Bill Clinton quietly helped Shimon Peres beat Netanyahu in an Israeli election. Similarly, during Barack Obama’s presidency (and Joe Biden’s vice presidency), the White House repeatedly clashed with Netanyahu, who did everything he could to undermine the president’s successful diplomacy with Iran, while insultingly accepting an invitation to address Congress without so much as a nod of courtesy to the White House. That conflict culminated in a December 2016 decision by Obama not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal West Bank settlements. (At the time, President-elect Trump, along with his controversial national security aide Lt. General Michael Flynn, tried to sabotage that vote.)

Despite that history of run-ins with Netanyahu, after Hamas invaded Israel and wreaked havoc, murdering and kidnapping hundreds, President Biden seemed remarkably unprepared for the ferocious Israeli counterattack that quickly became a scorched-earth campaign in Gaza killing tens of thousands, including thousands of children, and causing at least $50 billion in damage to that 25-mile strip of land so far. More than half of Gaza’s structures have been damaged or destroyed, including 24 hospitals, all 12 universities, and four-fifths of its schools. Nearly two million Gazans are now homeless. Throughout this carnage, Biden personally insisted on continuing to supply Israel with enormous quantities of weaponry, including the 2,000-pound bombs that Israel used to devastate whole city blocks. And for months he fought Republicans in Congress to secure a massive military aid package for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan.

Despite his past history, by bear-hugging Netanyahu while repeatedly opposing the idea of a ceasefire and an end to the killing, Biden came to face a growing revolt at home. Voters, especially young ones, as well as Palestinian-Americans, Arab-Americans, and Muslims, began peeling away from the Democrats and distancing themselves from the Biden reelection campaign. Many liberal and left-leaning Jews, who normally would vote Democratic in an overwhelming fashion, joined street demonstrations and campus protests in favor of a ceasefire. And an ever-larger segment of the Democratic Party’s elected officials, including as many as two dozen senators, began pressing Biden to reverse course. In March, in a speech that CNN said “sent shockwaves from Washington to Jerusalem,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the nation’s highest-ranking Jewish official, demanded that Netanyahu step down.

You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that, gradually, trepidatiously, President Biden began changing course. In early March, he warned Israel that he’d set a red line opposing Israel’s plan for a massive invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza. “[We] can’t have another 30,000 Palestinians dead,” he said. (As Israeli forces moved ever further into Rafah, that “red line” seemed to go missing in action.) A few weeks later, he hinted, and then confirmed, that the delivery of a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs to Israel had been “paused,” then halted, drawing fierce denunciations from the Trump-allied GOP but delivering an unmistakable signal to the Israeli government. And in June, Biden outlined a three-part peace plan for Gaza that, he insisted, originated in discussions with Israeli leaders and was intended to box Netanyahu into a schedule to wind down the conflict. “It’s time for this war to end,” said the president.

And mind you, he did all of that, modest as it was, despite knowing that many of the Democratic Party’s biggest pro-Israeli funders would be, to say the least, peeved. Typically, Haim Saban, an Israeli-American billionaire who is one of the Democratic Party’s biggest financial backers and hosted a February fundraiser in Los Angeles for Biden, reacted with outrage over the president’s decision to partially halt the shipment of American bombs to the Jewish state. “Bad, bad, bad decision on all levels,” he wrote in a message to Biden, as Axios reported. “Let’s not forget that there are more Jewish voters, who care about Israel, than Muslim voters that care about Hamas.” And Mark Mellman, the CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, a well-funded, prominent pro-Zionist organization (which, in February, had begun running ads supporting Biden in Michigan) spoke out against the arms halt. “There are a lot of people in the pro-Israel community who are very worried, very upset and very angry,” he said, in a statement reported by Fox News.

Undeterred by sporadic outbursts of opposition from hardcore, pro-Israel American Jews, Biden went even further in an interview with Time magazine, saying explicitly that Netanyahu was prolonging the war for political reasons — that is, his own survival — and reiterating his support for a Palestinian state.

It is, of course, fair to blame Biden for his egregious refusal to rein in Israel’s brutalization of Gaza. Many of his critics argue that Americans are, in fact, turning against Israel and that actions to cut off Israel would be popular. Perhaps, but no one, including those denouncing “Genocide Joe,” knows what political price Biden would have paid, had he, say, suspended all military deliveries to Israel and ordered his U.N. ambassador not to veto U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Israel’s war. At the very least, he would have triggered thunderous broadsides from Trump, congressional Republicans, and the massive domestic arsenal of pro-Israel supporters, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFA), and the ultra-right Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). At the same time, it isn’t clear that Biden would end up gaining significant additional support from left-liberal voters who’d cheer such an action.

What is certain, however, is that, if reelected in November, Trump is likely to renew his unqualified support for Israeli expansionism, not only when it comes to annexing the West Bank and resettling Gaza but also for a broader regional conflict that could unleash Israel against Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Such a catastrophic wider war could happen anyway, especially if Netanyahu decides that the only way he can survive politically is to open a major new eastern front. So far, the Biden administration has, at least, worked hard to contain the current conflict. Count on one thing: Donald Trump, who unleashed a campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, wouldn’t have done so.

When it comes to the Middle East, the choice in November 2024 is clear enough. If only it were better.

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