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Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
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Why Trump Sent an Adviser to Israel—and Why it Probably Won’t Matter for the Election

The Republican candidate is performing so poorly in the polls that his belated Israel outreach isn’t likely to have much of an impact

Armin Rosen
August 10, 2016
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In one of the least-important snippets of Donald Trump-related news to drop this week, David M. Friedman, a bankruptcy attorney and one of Trump’s two top advisers on Israel-related affairs, traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli officials, Haaretz reported. In a more traditional presidential race, meetings like these could signal a coming visit to Israel, perhaps as part of a larger international tour designed to reassure voters about a relatively untested candidate’s foreign policy chops. But when that candidate is involved in a controversy over whether he speculated about his opponent’s possible assassination, the importance of actual campaign work tends to diminish somewhat.

Even so, Friedman’s visit plays into a rational strategy for Trump’s campaign. Trump has a dedicated and quite vocal following among anti-Semites and has taken positions that are antithetical to where the mostly liberal and tolerance-minded American Jewish community generally stands, so his pitch to Jewish voters is necessarily Israel-based. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who has a scrutinizable record on Israel-related issues stemming from her time as secretary of state, offers a potential contrast to her more hard-line Republican opponent: For instance, during an extended conversation with me back in June, Friedman criticized Clinton’s role in pressuring the Israeli government into agreeing to a freeze on settlement construction during Barack Obama’s first term as president.

In Friedman’s view, Trump has gathered a team with unimpeachable pro-Israel credentials: “I don’t think there’s been a president in history who has taken advice from Israel advisors who are so passionately supportive of the state of Israel,” Friedman said of himself and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s general counsel and the campaign’s other top Israel official. Although Trump raised concerns among supporters of Israel after endorsing a position of “neutrality” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the Republican primary—a statement that earned him a rebuke from Clinton during her speech to AIPAC’s annual policy conference—Friedman himself has a background almost perfectly calibrated to reassure voters on the right wing of the pro-Israel community.

Friedman owns a home in Israel, runs philanthropies throughout the country, and serves as president of the American Friends of Bet-El, an organization which supports an Israeli settlement community deep in the West Bank. In our interview, Friedman said that he does not expect a President Trump to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace that would involve the evacuation of Bet-El, which is located near the geographic center of the Samaria region of the West Bank and likely would not remain under Israeli control in the event of a final-status agreement.

The value of Israel as a political wedge issue, however, diminishes as Trump continues to dive in the polls. The Republican candidate is now at around 40% support, 7.7% behind Clinton in Real Clear Politics’ polling average, while a Reuters poll found that 44% of respondents, including 19% of Republicans, want him to drop out of the race entirely.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was accused of openly backing Republican Mitt Romney during the last presidential campaign, is wise to the direction things are likely heading. The Israeli leader wasted little time in giving off an impression of balance after Friedman’s visit to Jerusalem: Haaretz also reported that Netanyahu had sent an official to the U.S. to meet with Clinton’s campaign the same week as Trump’s adviser visited Jerusalem. And Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who was appointed to the position partly because of his closeness to Netanyahu and his purportedly intimate understanding of American political culture, had kind words to say about Clinton during a side event at last month’s Democratic National Convention, crediting her for helping to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in 2012.

If the race were a little closer—and if Trump weren’t committing a major own-goal nearly every day—the Republican candidate’s possible future pivot to Israel-related issues could peel off enough Jews with right-wing Israel politics to tip the margins in Florida or Ohio slightly more in his favor. But Trump’s Israel politics will matter less and less as his chances of victory fade.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.