Good or Bad for America?

Washington, DC - March 18, 2016 at the National Press Club

"America is a thing that you can move very easily..." Binyamin Netanyahu, 2001

Israel and Foreign Policy Issues in the Presidential Campaign

By Justin Raimondo

Dale Sprusansky: Thank you very much. Now we have that fun opportunity to talk about the 2016 Election with Justin Raimondo. Raimondo is an author and editorial director at antiwar.com, where he writes a regular column. He’s also a regular contributor to The American Conservative and Chronicles magazine. He’s also written a handful of books on U.S. foreign policy, as well as on the conservative movement. His talk today is titled, “Israel and Foreign Policy Issues in the Presidential Campaign.”

Justin Raimondo: Let’s do a little experiment. Now, I realize that what most people remember about the recent Republican presidential debates is the vulgarity, the inanity, the name-calling, the references to hand length. But there have been a few moments of lucidity—when history has been made, precedents have been set and, yes, even reasons for optimism have been highlighted, although these may have been lost amid all the brouhaha and the liberal moralizing.

So on to our experiment. Which candidate said the following: “As president, there’s nothing that I would rather do than to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors generally, and I think it serves no purpose to say ‘but 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, okay? But it doesn’t help if I start saying, ‘I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage.’ But it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors, because I would love to do something with regard to negotiating peace finally for Israel and for their neighbors, and I can’t do that as well as a negotiator—I cannot do that as well if I am taking sides.”

Now I’m going to give you a few seconds to contemplate the answer. I mean here is a rare example of a Republican candidate speaking reasonably, rationally, in a statesman-like manner, about one of the most controversial issues in American politics. Here is someone who has defied the bipartisan consensus on Israeli-American relations, which is that we must always give unstinting and unconditional support to a Jewish state. Here is an outright abrogation of the conditions of the so-called special relationship, that one-sided love affair that dictates Washington must kowtow to Tel Aviv and ignore the horrific conditions under which Palestinians must live.

Okay, you had enough time. So what’s the answer? [Laughter] Who would dare to step on the third rail of American politics and defy the Israel lobby? The answer has to be Donald Trump, doesn’t it? And indeed it is. He said it in Houston. He said it in Detroit. He said it on Fox News. The two other main contenders attacked him for it, both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and of course they didn’t have a substantial criticism. There can’t be any. After all, how can one argue against evenhandedness? Cruz merely repeated his pledge to give Israel everything it wants and more, while Rubio repeated the Israeli Embassy’s talking points: Hamas is evil, Hezbollah is terrorist, and, of course, moral equivalence is immoral. In short, it’s the usual nonsense, as if the Palestinians and their local allies have no right to resist the occupation.

Yet Trump stood his ground. He has repeated his position in at least two debates and, wonder of wonders, has suffered not at all for it at the ballot box—which is quite astonishing after the one debate. They have a North Carolina primary and, “oh, Trump is finished part 99.” And of course he wasn’t, was he? He is the frontrunner by a country mile, and the only flak he’s gotten over it has been from the usual suspects, the neoconservatives who you just heard about, who hated him anyway and are among his loudest detractors. Bill Kristol’s so-called Emergency Committee for Israel ran an ad attacking him—but not, interestingly enough, over his support for evenhandedness in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They didn’t want to go there. That’s because Trump has single-handedly changed the terms of the debate without hardly anyone noticing, and of course without hardly anyone giving him any credit for it.

Israel is no longer the third rail of American politics—not since the rise of Donald Trump—which no candidate dare step on for fear of his or her political future. How did he do it? By simply and fearlessly telling the truth. Of course, some people did notice—the Israel lobby, first of all. And in Israel itself panic has set in. An interesting piece by Chemi Shalev, usually one of the more reasonable Zionists, notes that, “In their Super Tuesday speeches, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio tried to use an Israel hammer to bash Donald Trump. Cruz sneeringly lambasted him for saying that he would remain neutral, while Rubio trounced Trump for trying to stay impartial, as his audience booed accordingly. And Trump? Trump was racking up victories, amassing delegates, and laughing all the way to the top of the Republican presidential field. In this way, the New York billionaire is decimating the conventional wisdom—one of many—that, in 2016, total and unconditional support for Israel is a prerequisite for any aspiring Republican candidate wishing to run for president.”

Remember when the support of evangelical Christians was contingent on a candidate’s willingness to grovel before Bibi Netanyahu? Poor Rand Paul, for example—the alleged anti-interventionist, isolationist and fellow libertarian—had to travel all the way to Israel, cuddle up to the Israeli right-wing and pointedly ignore the Palestinians, whom he didn’t even deign to visit. And where did it get him? Just amused disdain from the Jewish Republican coalition and a series of televised ads from a dark money pro-Israel group attacking him for his trouble.

Appeasement, it seems, doesn’t work when it comes to dealing with the Israel lobby. But one tactic does seem to work—a direct and honest assault. As Shalev notes in Haaretz, Southern Evangelicals voted for Trump anyway, and in droves. They handed him victories in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia and elsewhere. As Shalev puts it, “The conception is falling apart. The notion that the Republican Party is a monolithic bastion of support that will withstand the test of time is evaporating. The belief that any Republican president who will follow Obama will be better for Israel is eroding with each passing day. Faced with the Trump phenomenon, Netanyahu’s fortress GOP strategy is collapsing like a house of cards.” [Applause]

So this is what they’re seeing and saying in Israel. The supposed invincibility of the Israel lobby has been a long time unraveling, but the process began a couple of years ago, with their first big defeat over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. Senator Cruz, in particular, took center stage during this seminal battle, doing his imitation of Joe McCarthy and impugning Hagel’s integrity and accusing his supporters of being “friends of Hamas,” whatever that may mean. It didn’t work, and the Obama administration grew bolder, taking the initiative and defying the lobby and becoming more vocal in its criticism of Israel and its settlement building.

But it took a Republican, it took Donald Trump, to deal the Israel lobby a death blow, breaking its stranglehold on the Republican Party and defying the interdict against evenhandedness in dealing with the occupation. The Israel lobby, for all its legendary wealth and influence, was always a paper tiger, and it was inevitable that this would eventually happen. As Shalev points out, there is no going back. “Every time Cruz and Rubio tried to hit Trump over the head with an Israel club and nothing happens, it is Israel’s weakness that is exposed. Every time Trump wins a party primary without a challenge from his supporters, another nail is driven into the coffin of the unshakeable alliance between Israel and America’s deep right.”

That alliance is now being shaken to its very foundations and the panic extends to a Democratic Party, where Haim Saban, the billionaire who’s great achievement has been the creation of Mighty Morphin Rangers, is denouncing Trump as “unreliable when it comes to supporting Israel.” Calling the Republican frontrunner a clown and dangerous, he ranted in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 that Trump is “dangerous for the world, and since Israel is part of the world; therefore, he’s dangerous for Israel.”

As Trump would say, okay? [Laughter] And especially dangerous, it seems, for those who consider Israel to be the moral equivalent of the entire world.

Says Saban, “It is hard to know what he is thinking. One day he’ll give an interview to an Israeli newspaper and say, ‘you’ve never had such a friend in the White House as you will when I become president.’ The next day they ask him about the Middle East, and he says, ‘I’m neutral, I’m the U.N., I won’t involve myself.’ You just don’t know with him. Every day it’s something else.”
Nothing less than complete and total support satisfies people like Saban. Anything else is dangerous for Israel. Saban, by the way, is one of Hillary Clinton’s longtime supporters. He has given her millions of dollars and is the single biggest donor to a Democratic congressional campaign. He has a net worth of $3.6 billion.

Now, what’s really significant about Trump’s stance is that, if as president he tries to make a deal in an evenhanded way and it all falls through, Israel will be blamed, as Chemi Shalev rightly says in Haaretz. That’s because for domestic political reasons, the Israeli leadership cannot and will not make any significant concessions—which is why they view Trump’s evenhandedness with absolute horror. That will show the world what Israel is really all about, deepening the rift between Washington and Tel Aviv, and perhaps even calling U.S. financial support to the Jewish state into question. After all, if Trump is critical of having to pay for the defense of Japan, Korea, and our European allies without getting much of anything in return, what’s to stop him from taking the same dim view of our yearly tribute of $3.5 billion to Israel and getting bupkis for our generosity?

The dam is broken. The great breakthrough is upon us, and the great irony is that it came about because of a politician widely reviled by liberals, and especially by Muslims, for his undisguised hostility to people of the Muslim faith. Who would have thought that this man, of all men, would sound a reasonable note on the issue of U.S.-Israeli relations? Yet, history is full of such ironies. I would advise you not to let your shock at the rather counterintuitive notion of a reasonable Donald Trump blind you to the unfolding political reality.

Bernie Sanders, another outsider, has expressed support for a more evenhanded approach, albeit in much vaguer terms. His stance on the whole issue of Israel has been given much less prominence by his campaign; whereas Trump has given voice to his position in at least two high-profile debates and taken lots of heat for it. An article in The Intercept by Murtaza Husssain fails to cite Trump’s position accurately or in full, while noting that this is new territory for Sanders, who has been supportive of Israel, including even during the heinous attacks on Gaza in the past. This is to be expected. Trump’s hostility to Muslims per se isn’t going to endear him to politically correct liberals who don’t want to give him credit for anything.

What’s going to be interesting is that both Sanders and Trump are scheduled to speak at the upcoming AIPAC conference [Audience shouts that Sanders is not speaking at AIPAC], and so we’ll see what happens there. And I have to note that our friends at CODEPINK are circulating a petition urging Sanders not to attend the AIPAC event. One has to wonder if they’re afraid he’ll continue his long career of pandering to the Jewish state and its American supporters, while Trump is surely not going to change or modify his position in any way, as usual.

The Israel lobby is very concerned about Trump. The neoconservatives who direct it are vehemently opposed to him because he challenges the very basis of America’s interventionist foreign policy which they have supported on ideological grounds, as well as its obvious benefits to Israel. Trump’s statement that the U.S. was deliberately lied into the Iraq war has enraged them to the point that neocon chief strategist Bill Kristol has called for a third-party candidate to oppose him. Neocon Max Boot has said he’d vote for Stalin before voting for him. [Laughter] Presumably, he’d write in Trotsky. To a man, the neocons are frothing at the mouth that Trump is winning primary after primary, to which I can only add, by their enemies, ye shall know them. Thank you. [Applause]

I just want to make a comment about Sanders. You’re telling that he did not accept the invitation to speak, and of course that’s out of sheer cowardice. I mean, he doesn’t want to alienate his radical left-wing supporters who are so busy disrupting Trump’s rallies that they don’t even really care what his positions are. So it’s just very consistent with his reticence on the issue of Israel. And I might add that at a town hall meeting on the subject in his district in Vermont, I believe it is, he once threw somebody out of the room for daring to ask about his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, so much for liberal moralizing on that issue and their big hero, Bernie Sanders.

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