Just a week before Election Day, and after an estimated 22 million people had already voted, voters finally a have a clearer idea of Donald Trump’s stances on Israel. On Nov. 1, David M. Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, the lawyers who head the Republican candidate’s Israel advisory committee, published a “joint statement” that provides some important insights into how Trump views this ever-vexing corner of the world.
In some respects, Trump’s stance on U.S. policy towards Israel is predictably Trumpian. For instance, the authors note: “While other nations have required U.S. troops to defend them, Israelis have always defended their own country by themselves and only ask for military equipment assistance and diplomatic support to do so.” But this is the document’s only nod towards Trumpian America Firstism, and it includes plenty of red meat for mainline pro-Israel types who might be still be deciding who to support.
As president, Trump would move the embassy to Jerusalem, and “give support [to Israel] greater than that provided” under the recently-signed 10-year Memorandum of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel. A President Trump would cut off U.S. funding to the one-sidedly anti-Israel UN Human Rights Council, and he considers the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement to be “inherently anti-Semitic.” Trump wouldn’t support an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that results in a Palestinian state free of Jewish inhabitants. And Trump’s Justice Department would look into “coordinated attempts on college campuses to intimidate students who support Israel.”
I asked David Friedman by email whether that would entail federal investigations of student groups, like Students for Justice in Palestine, or inquiries that could determine whether harassment of students could jeopardize educational institutions’ tax status and eligibility to receive federal funding. “Yes to all potential targets and remedies identified,” Friedman wrote, “and potentially others.”
The statement isn’t universally hawkish. The Republican party platform was notably agnostic on whether the party still backs a two-state outcome in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Friedman and Greenblatt’s statement still “support[s] direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians without preconditions,” and says that Trump would “seek to assist the Israelis and the Palestinians in reaching a comprehensive and lasting peace, to be freely and fairly negotiated between those living in the region.”
The biggest deviation from the Republican party line comes in the statement’s implication that the Iran nuclear deal will survive in its current form under a President Trump: “The US must counteract Iran’s ongoing violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and their noncompliance with past and present sanctions,” the statement reads.
Because the nuclear accord is structured as an executive agreement between the U.S. president and the office’s Iranian counterparts, any president has the legal authority to annul the deal whenever they want to. According to the statement, Trump wouldn’t exercise that option as president. When reached for comment, David Friedman clarified that Trump does not intend to trash the Iran deal when he gets to the White House. “The Iran deal was a terrible mistake which has placed the world at grave risk,” Friedman wrote by email. “However, we have now released the funds to, and lifted the sanctions on, Iran, so the primary consequence of ‘ripping up the deal’ is to shorten even further the nuclear runway.” At the same time, Friedman didn’t rule out additional nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, even with the agreement still in place. “Assuming (a big assumption) that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA and otherwise not threatening the US or its allies, we believe the Trump administration will use this period to engage with world leaders to re-introduce economic leverage on Iran and seek to eliminate the Iran nuclear program well in advance of the current 9-year runway.”
There’s a certain contradiction in this stance. Iran is already dissatisfied with the pace of sanctions relief under the JCPOA. New sanctions—especially ones that are explicitly related to a nuclear issue that diplomacy has supposedly already settled—would likely result in Tehran’s own abrogation of the agreement. Trump wants something stronger than the JCPOA, but doesn’t want to be the one to abrogate the deal himself.
There’s a larger tension at work in the document as well: Just how serious is Trump about any of the policies in his advisers’ statement? It’s hard to question either Friedman or Greenblatt’s sincerity: Both appear genuinely concerned for Israel’s well-being, and Friedman runs a number of philanthropic programs in the country (while also serving as the head of the American Friends of Bet El, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank that is unlikely to remain under Israeli control in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement). It’s the candidate they speak for who remains something of a mystery, even at this late stage. Trump seems as changeable and unpredictable as he was when he advocated for U.S. “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year.
The statement is nevertheless clarifying, if only because the pro-Israel right’s organizational apparatus has been notably absent from the election. In 2012, the Emergency Committee for Israel, the Republican-leaning pressure group founded by the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, filed 11 Form 5 independent expenditure reports with the Federal Election Commission on behalf of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign or in opposition to Obama’s reelection bid, reporting ad buys totaling over $250,000. (A Form 5 is the FEC’s standard disclosure for public affairs committees that spend money in order to influence the outcome of the election). Kristol is a vocal member of the Never Trump faction, and according to the FEC’s publicly available data, his group hasn’t filed a single Form 5 in connection to the 2016 presidential campaign. Jewish donors have largely sat out the campaign as well, with 81 percent of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board opting not to donate to Trump.
Of course, it isn’t pro-Israel activists or organizers in Washington that the Trump campaign most needs to convince. The audience for this statement is more likely to be Florida’s roughly 600,000 Jewish voters who could prove decisive on election day. A late August poll found that 26 percent of Florida’s Jewish voters plan on supporting Trump, which would constitute some 150,000 votes or more. A second poll of Florida’s Jews conducted in September by the Mellman Group, a Democratic-linked firm, found her losing ground. The Trump campaign might think that highlighting its often-hawkish Israel policies could narrow their margins in a must-win swing state where they’ve consistently been polling within the margin of error. The American votes cast in the Jewish state itself have been similarly close: According to Politico, a poll conducted by iVote Israel found that Trump had defeated Clinton 49 percent to 44 percent among Israel-based voters.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.