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Sunday, June 16, 2024

What Trump really thinks about Israel and the war in Gaza

Former President Donald Trump hasn’t said much publicly about the war in Gaza, despite implementing hardline pro-Israel policies while he was in office. But what he has said has put him squarely in line with a GOP base that is beginning to lose interest in the war, even as it maintains support for Israel.

And recently, he’s begun taking an increasingly hostile stance against Palestinians and their supporters in the US.

Earlier this month, he reportedly told donors behind closed doors that he would pursue a zero-tolerance policy with respect to what he reportedly referred to as the “radical revolution” that has swept US college campuses in recent months, saying he would have deported protesters who aren’t US citizens. 

“Well, if you get me elected, and you should really be doing this, if you get me reelected, we’re going to set that movement back 25 or 30 years,” he reportedly said.

If Trump sees college campuses as another front in the culture wars that he can play up for the election, the war in Gaza itself may be a thornier matter.

Trump, who routinely touts his support of Israel more broadly, has reportedly said he supports Israel in its continued “war on terror” after the October 7 attack by Hamas. And like members of the Israeli government, he has cast doubt on the continued viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been a cornerstone of US policy for decades. 

At times, however, he has also been critical of the Israeli campaign.  He’s said Israel should “get it over with … get back to peace and stop killing people.” But he’s also emphasized they “have to have a victory” and implied that what’s really the issue is that Israel is “absolutely losing the PR war” and “losing its power” in Congress. He has also criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom his relations have cooled since Netanyahu’s acknowledgment of Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral win.

By that account, it’s clear that Trump would be even harsher on protesters and hug Israel even tighter than Biden. But as Biden’s support erodes due to his perceived failure to be critical enough of Israel, Trump can avoid scrutiny out of the spotlight on the incumbent president. 

Trump’s political calculation on Gaza

This isn’t new from Trump.

During his first term, Trump was one of the most pro-Israel US presidents. He recognized Israel’s controversial annexation of the Golan Heights and the country’s capital as Jerusalem, despite the fact that control of Jerusalem has been a sticking point in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians for decades. 

This arguably tarnished the US’s ability to act as a credible broker of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, who have increasingly sought diplomatic solutions outside of the peace process. Nevertheless, Trump has continued to boast of those measures as proof of his pro-Israel bona fides.

Though he has not elaborated on his plans for a second term, there’s reason to believe that he would advance similar policies, with his son-in-law and former Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, recently suggesting that Gaza’s current borders can be altered in contradiction of current US policy. “Gaza’s waterfront property could be very valuable,” he said in February.

That said, it’s notable that Trump hasn’t chosen to highlight the war as a top campaign trail issue. And that’s likely because he senses where the electorate is at. The fact remains that the war in Gaza isn’t a determinative electoral issue for the vast majority of voters, and even Republicans have soured on it: A majority now support a permanent ceasefire and de-escalation of violence, even as they still hold favorable views of Israel

It’s also probably in Trump’s interest not to say more because the issue is already splintering the Democratic base without any help from his campaign. This has been vexing for the Biden campaign, who can point to Trump as being stridently anti-Palestinian and yet lose support from the pro-Palestianian left anyway.

But it seems that Trump does see the US political discourse around the war — rather than the war itself — as a winning issue. Trump has loudly condemned the antiwar protests, meeting his base where they are: A plurality of Republican voters approve of universities’ efforts to clamp down on the protests, and less than half had a favorable view of institutions of higher education at the height of the protests. 

That fits in with a broader GOP narrative about the perceived liberal excesses of universities and the unwillingness of Democrats to impose law and order — despite excessive displays of force on some college campuses in response to what were initially peaceful student protests. 

“Many suburban voters have not been fans of the chaos that has been taking place at many of these protests,” Matt Terrill, a GOP strategist and former chief of staff to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, said. “It comes down to who they trust to maintain safety.” 

Trump can afford to sit back while Biden walks a tightrope on Gaza

Biden’s base is still largely pro-Israel, but his support has plummeted among younger voters — a key demographic he needs to win, and one that tends to have a more positive view of Palestine than older voters. Juggling their interests has proved challenging. 

The president has said that he is listening to the demands of protesters on college campuses. But aside from at times critical words, he has stood by Israel as its leaders face possible arrest warrants for war crimes and continued to send weapons that Israel has used to commit atrocities, including the recent strike on a camp in Rafah. On Friday, he introduced a new ceasefire proposal that he said Israel had endorsed, declaring “It is time for this war to end.”

A majority of Democratic voters approve of Biden’s overall approach, but it may turn off a passionate few who are horrified by the US’s involvement in the war. In a battleground state like Michigan won and lost by thin margins and where Arab-Americans have a large presence, that could make a difference in what is shaping up to be a close national election. According to May polling from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, only 7 percent of Arab-Americans are currently planning to vote for Biden.

But given what Trump has been saying about Palestinians, where does that leave voters disenchanted with Biden? 

They might decide to vote for Trump anyway because they believe it will be easier to mobilize Democratic opposition to the war if a Republican is in the White House, said Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“Donald Trump gave Democrats a backbone,” he said. “Donald Trump forced Democrats to stand on the right side.” 

Or maybe they’ll choose neither and vote third-party.

“These voters are not going to vote in a monolith,” said Layla Elabed, a progressive Palestinian American community organizer based in Michigan and the younger sister of Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI.) “But for folks who are deeply entrenched in this antiwar pro-peace movement, it is going to be difficult to continue what now seems like an electoral tradition of choosing the lesser of two evils.”

Voters are having these kinds of deliberations even without Trump having laid out a clear vision for Gaza in his second term. In that sense, he has no real incentive to draw a sharper contrast with Biden — the issue has already put the president on the back foot. 

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