Big money donors defecting from GOP raise new tensions over Israel

Big money donors defecting from GOP raise new tensions over Israel
© Greg Nash

The annual Jewish season of introspection culminated last Wednesday, when Jews congregated in synagogues for Yom Kippur observances. Pledging to mend their errant ways, believers beseeched the Divine to show them mercy and seal their inscriptions in the Book of Life.

A couple of prominent Jewish philanthropists hedged their bets this year, getting an even earlier start on their Rosh Hashanah resolutions. Their actions presage the probability of further troubles in the triangular relationship between the U.S. Jewish community, the State of Israel and the Trump administration.

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Leslie Wexner is founder, chairman and CEO of Columbus-based L Brands, the parent company of retail giants such as Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works. He is also self-made patriarch of the wealthiest family in all of Ohio. During the 2016 election cycle, Wexner – a registered Republican since college – made campaign contributions in excess of $4 million, almost all of them to GOP or conservative candidates.

Seth Klarman, CEO and president of the Baupost Group, is one of America's highest-earning fund managers. Not long ago, he was New England's top donor to the Republican Party. Wexner and Klarman are two of the country's most prolific supporters of Jewish and pro-Israel causes.

Both men recently renounced their allegiance to the GOP. (Wexner changed his status to now join Klarman as an Independent.) The reason for their departure? The deeply flawed presidency of the party's standard-bearer, one Donald J. Trump.

A champion of bipartisan civility, Wexner told a hometown audience that he was "fed up" with the Republican Party. Trump's response to last year's riots in Charlottesville, Wexner shared, had left him feeling that "I have to do something because the leader of our country is behaving poorly."

Employing even harsher language, Klarman, in an interview with the New York Times, confessed his lack of faith that "spineless" Republicans would resist the president. "We need to turn the House and Senate as a check on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMilitary personnel to handle coronavirus patients at facilities in NYC, New Orleans and Dallas Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has total of 20 patients: report Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders MORE and his runaway presidency." Klarman is putting his money where his mouth is, contributing millions to Democratic-leaning office-seekers and PACs.

Liberal Jews have been among the most vocal critics of Trump from the get-go, but their partisan pedigree limits the cachet of their criticism. What is new and extremely significant here is that Wexner and Klarman are disaffected from within. Their break with the Republican brand broadcasts their belief that Trump is bad not only for America, but evidently for Israel and the Jewish People too. And it could be a precursor to others following their lead.

It also puts them on a collision course with a majority of Israelis. Trump’s decisions to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, withdraw from the Iran deal, suspend funding for UNRWA and now close the PLO office in Washington and deport its envoy have made the U.S. president immensely popular in Israel.

A parallel challenge is brewing from within the Jewish establishment. The Trump administration has implemented a series of sanctions against the Palestinians in an ostensible bid to bring them back to the negotiating table. The Netanyahu government has led the applause section. Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee, a premiere communal agency, has taken a reproachful stance. Measures to halt funding for hospitals in the eastern part of Jerusalem, and for programs that encourage Israeli-Palestinian interaction, do not "make total sense & uphold American values," the AJC weighed in on Twitter.

Trump is not indifferent to these shots across his bow. A new study by the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem highlights grumbling within the administration that "the president's pro-Israel moves… are not sufficiently appreciated by large segments of the American Jewish community."

It's not beyond possible that Trump might be provoked to rethink his friendship for Israel, the Evangelical vote notwithstanding. And if he did, might Israelis come to believe that they are at counter-purposes from America or from American Jews, who are overwhelmingly disparaging of Trump's performance? Conversely, for the likes of Wexner and Klarman – people with stellar credentials as stalwart patrons of Israel – who seek Trump's overthrow, might they conclude that their distaste for Trump can't possibly coexist with their love for Israel?

American Jewry, to be sure, is far from monolithic. Many of its members remain grounded on the right. The nation's largest contributors in the current political cycle are Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, staunch Israel benefactors, who have given a reported $50 million to Republican hopefuls.

Others are trying to construct a bridge to Trump's inner circle. A dinner hosted earlier this month by Paul Singer and Haim Saban – influential donors of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively – provided the venue for a dialogue between a group of Jewish leaders, senior White House aides Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerCongress needs to step up fast to protect abused children Kushner makes first appearance at coronavirus briefing Trump leans on businesses in coronavirus response MORE and Jason Greenblatt, and U.N. ambassador Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyCoronavirus sets off industry scramble for aid from Washington Why Klobuchar should be Biden's vice presidential pick Overnight Defense: 'Tens of thousands' of National Guard troops could be activated for coronavirus response | Hospital ships could take week to deploy | Trump says military to help Americans stuck in Peru MORE. One goal of the event was, presumably, to allow for differences to be aired discreetly, sparing further damage to the interface between the U.S. government, its Israeli counterpart and the Jewish community in America.

The impending U.S. midterms and the prospect of early elections in Israel guarantee that these tensions will not disappear. What remains far from certain though are the fortunes of the U.S.-Israel partnership when its strongest advocates are hell-bent on unseating the person most responsible for it.

Shalom Lipner (@ShalomLipner) is nonresident senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.