Trump leans into Israel policy ahead of election
President Trump is leaning into his foreign policy record with Israel in the waning days before the presidential election, pushing through a rash of policy changes and touting breakthrough diplomatic agreements as proof his policies are best for the region and U.S. security.
It’s a key selling point for Trump to his base of Christian evangelical voters and has energized Jewish Republicans who endorse the president’s rejection of engagement with the Palestinians to move forward U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Foreign policy is not a dominant issue in this cycle with the United States ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, but the issue could help Trump in at least one tightly-contested swing state: Florida, where both he and Democrat Joe Biden are battling for 29 electoral votes.
Trump maintains healthy support among evangelicals in particular, but Biden has sought to make some advances. For example, Biden as seized on Trump’s hesitancy to call out Turkey for its support of Azerbaijan’s offensive war against Armenia, a majority Christian country.
Christians United For Israel, the largest pro-Israel evangelical organization, sent an action alert last week to its more than 9 million members calling on Trump to impose sanctions on Turkey for “behaving like an enemy state” and its “increasing maleavolence.”
But Biden has also taken a measured tone reacting to Trump’s policy changes on Israel, welcoming the trend of normalized relations with Israel and Arab- and Muslim-majority countries and committing to keeping the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
Jewish groups supportive of Biden have launched multiple television ad campaigns in key swing states — Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania — attacking Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting Biden as a staunch supporter of Israel.
“Jewish Americans mourn those lost due to COVID, and are committed to electing Joe Biden in order to restoring empathy, compassion, and leadership to White House,” Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said about her organization’s $500,000-ad-buy.
About 70 percent of Jewish voters say they support Biden, according to Pew Research polls, but the community as a whole only makes up about 2 percent of the electorate. But Jewish Democratic groups have mobilized to appeal to the wider majority of pro-Israel supporters and are focused intently on Florida.
Neither Trump nor Biden have established a clear majority amid preelection polls, raising the stakes that thousands of votes could decide the election in that state.
“Are there 25- or 50- or 200,000 pro-Israel swing voters in Florida? You bet there are,” Democratic Majority for Israel PAC president Mark Mellman told The Hill.
In October, the DMFI PAC launched a six-figure streaming and digital advertising campaign in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan promoting Biden’s “enduring commitment to the peace and security of Israel.”
“In a state that’s one or two or three points [difference between the candidates], there’s no question the pro-Israel community could make the decisive difference,” Mellman said.
Trump touted his record on Israel in Florida this past week, boasting to rally attendees in Pensacola and Tampa of his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy to the Holy City.
“Every president wanted to do those two things for many, many decades,” he said. “And I understand why they couldn’t, a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure against.”
He’s touted as a breakthrough the agreements by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to open diplomatic relations with Israel, and has promised that between five and 10 more countries will follow their lead.
“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi?” Trump said in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when announcing the open relations between Israel and Sudan. “Somehow, I don’t think so.”
Netanyahu responded that Israel appreciates “the help for peace from anyone in America. And we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”
This past week, Trump pushed through further significant policy changes that previous administrations had refused and even gone to battle over in the Supreme Court. This includes lifting restrictions on technology and research investment in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and allowing Americans born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their country of birth on U.S. passports.
Trump earlier recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and reversed American policy that defined Israeli settlements as illegal.
And Trump frequently attacks Biden for his part in the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, which was opposed at the time by the Republican party, senior Democratic lawmakers and the Israeli government.
The president pulled out of the deal in 2018 and imposed punishing sanctions on Tehran as part of a “maximum pressure campaign” to force Iran into new negotiations. Trump has said at his rallies that if he wins reelection, the first call will be from Iran’s leaders asking to be included in normalization deals with Israel.
“When I win, the first call I’ll get will be from Iran, they’re going to want to make a deal,” Trump said at his rally in Tampa on Thursday.
Supporters of the nuclear deal argue Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement emboldened Iran to increase its uranium enrichment and has brought it closer to realizing a nuclear weapon. Biden has proposed re-entering the nuclear deal but with stronger terms and taking into account more restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile programs and destabilizing activities in the Middle East.
Trump’s policy turns on Israel have long secured him the backing of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and GOP mega-donor who is a key contributor to his reelection campaign. In August and September, Adelson poured $75 million into a pro-Trump super PAC, CNN reported, and the Adelson-owned Las Vegas Review-Journal endorsed the president in an editorial Oct. 3.