Opinion

Trump's cynical Israel ploy

Is the president using foreign policy to shore up evangelical support?

Has U.S. foreign policy become an arm of President Trump's re-election campaign?

Certainly, the president has never been shy about welcoming the involvement of other countries in U.S. politics. He was happy when Russia hacked the 2016 election in his favor. And he is now accused of using American aid to pressure Ukraine into investigating and undermining Vice President Joe Biden, one of his opponents in the 2020 election. At home and abroad, the president's habit has been to use government action to further his own prospects.

The latest example — perhaps not impeachable, but certainly alarming — involves Israel.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced the United States no longer finds Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be "inconsistent with international law." The move reverses decades of American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians are mad. So is most of the international community. But hawkish Israelis — like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — are happy, and so are their allies in the United States. And that's probably the key to understanding the auspicious timing of Pompeo's announcement.

Pompeo denied suggestions the policy change was intended to shore up the political prospects of Netanyahu, who is currently locked in a struggle over who will form the country's next government. "The timing of this was not tied to anything that had to do with domestic politics anywhere," Pompeo said.

But there are reasons to think that might not be entirely true. Pompeo's announcement landed during Trump's impeachment turmoil, at a time when his own political strength is under question. And we know one thing about this president: When times get hard, he runs for the safety and shelter of his most loyal voters. And there is probably no group of Trump voters more devoted and loyal — especially in the face of widespread consternation and criticism — than conservative U.S. Christians.

The stories of that loyalty have mostly involved domestic politics. Trump earned the support of evangelicals in large part by promising to appoint conservative judges with the potential to issue church-friendly rulings on abortion and "religious freedom" cases involving gay rights. The president has occasionally wavered in servicing other parts of his base — at times he has publicly entertained the possibility of gun restrictions, and signed budgets without funding for his border wall — but on judges, at least, Trump has been steadfast. Evangelicals have reciprocated by offering their unwavering support, despite the president's lengthy history of what might be charitably called "un-Christian behavior."

"In Donald Trump, evangelicals have found their president," David Brody, a Christian journalist, declared last year in The New York Times.

There is an international component to evangelical loyalty, though — and it is mostly centered on Israel. American evangelicals aren't Zionists, exactly. But many of them do believe that the existence of Israel fulfills Biblical prophecies about the end of the world. Trump might not understand the theological underpinnings of this belief, but that doesn't mean he can't harness it for his own purposes.

Monday's move really only makes sense, in fact, if it is viewed as an effort to shore up Trump's evangelical support. It doesn't make sense in pure policy terms, because it alienates so many of the players while changing nothing of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic — the West Bank settlements will continue to be a bone of contention between the two sides. And while Trump apparently feels free to attack the loyalty of American Jews who vote Democratic, he cannot at this point realistically believe that his Israel-friendly policies will lead to a "Jexit" of voters to the GOP.

The announcement does, however, seem to bind the president to evangelicals more tightly. The Christian Broadcasting Network on Monday reported the news by quoting a Texas pastor praising Trump. "It demonstrates to the rest of the world that America still has the courage to stand with Israel," said Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church.

Once again, President Trump is using foreign policy primarily as a tool to enhance and retain his own political power. Most presidential decisions are made with an eye to the next election campaign — naturally — but usually such considerations are subordinate to American interests, power, and resolve.

We have little evidence that this president is capable of — or interested in — balancing his self-interest against any conception of the greater good. The result is that American policy in the Middle East these days can't be said to be "America First" or even "Israel First." Instead, it's "Trump First." Just like it always is.

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