The news that Donald Trump named a rightwing extremist, David Friedman, as ambassador to Israel is a sign of the new nationalism we are going to be seeing in this administration: Jews can have Israel and Palestine, but America is for Americans.
It is hardly a coincidence that Friedman was named at the same time as the trial balloon of neoconservative John Bolton for deputy secretary of State was being shot down from a hundred different angles. Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson had pushed Bolton in a bid to recapitulate his role with George W. Bush, when he appeared to sign off on neoconservative policymakers throughout the administration. But then everyone from Condoleeza Rice to Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson himself signaled opposition to Bolton as a wildman and an author of the Iraq war, and Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews savaged him on air.
Now the new name being bruited as Tillerson’s deputy is Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations, a safe conservative choice if ever there was one.
And David Friedman is the sop thrown to Adelson.
Compare this to the last time a Republican administration was coming into power. Sheldon Adelson gave $300,000 to the Republican national state elections committee and George W. Bush gifted flyweight Doug Feith a Pentagon policymaking position and gave neoconservatives free run of the administration, from Scooter Libby to Elliott Abrams to Richard Perle to Paul Wolfowitz.
Adelson is not alone. The last few days have seen a similar political spectacle on the Democratic side, the public humiliation of Haim Saban. For both these men, Israel is issue number one. And both parties have evidently had enough. The kingmakers are suddenly begging for crumbs.
On the Democratic side, Saban tried to destroy Keith Ellison’s reputation two weeks ago, denouncing him in a room filled with Washington insiders as “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel,” and yet Keith Ellison is still walking around Washington as the lead candidate for or the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. Yesterday he was endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Clintonite Randi Weingarten. Ellison also has the backing of Chuck Schumer and other party stalwarts who used to shake in their boots when Saban walked into the room.
The last DNC chair all but mocked Palestinian suffering and for weeks in 2015 Hillary Clinton’s braintrust strategized behind closed doors with Saban over how best to oppose Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
Both these billionaire pillars of the Israel lobby are plainly losing influence. Even if they should win both appointment battles, it is clear that large portions of their parties have broken with them publicly, and do not fear their revenge.
The reasons for this power-drop are obvious. Populism has consequences; there were populist uprisings on both sides, showing open resistance to elites such as the Israel lobby. Money mattered less than ever in this election. Clinton outraised Trump two to one, and it didn’t matter; Trump won anyway. Before that, Clinton was nearly beaten by a populist campaign, Bernie Sanders’s, that raised money on the internet at $27 a pop, greatly reducing the influence of high rollers. If there is one big backer whose signature is all over the Clinton defeat, it’s Haim Saban. He was sending regular memos to campaign chair John Podesta on what was necessary for the campaign to do, including spending all that time on BDS. As if that was going to help Clinton with anyone but the Jewish establishment. It surely hurt her with the Democratic activist base.
Trump and Sanders were anti-establishment candidates whose backers on the right and the left are not afraid to talk about the Israel lobby. Keith Ellison’s base is the left side of the Democratic Party, young people, women, and people of color, who are turning strongly against Israel.
Trump’s campaign was explicitly America First; his base includes American nationalists and white nationalists who are sick of taking one for Israel in the Middle East. Trump may have gotten millions from Sheldon Adelson, but his campaign strategist Steve Bannon ran an ad that many felt was blaming Jewish bankers for job loss in Middle America; and though Bannon is pro-Zionist, he seems to feel no particular obligation to the lobby. He blew off Adelson’s outfit, the Zionist Organization of America, even after the ZOA stuck its neck out for him. The message was: America for Americans, Israel for the Jews.
Friedman has said he will have nothing to do with the liberal Zionist group J Street, even called them “kapos;” and that is another reason for Saban and Adelson’s loss of power. The Jewish establishment unity has at last been broken.
There is outright war among Jewish groups over what is good for Israel and what is good for America. You need a score card to keep track these days. The Jewish Federations refused to attend the Conference of Presidents Hanukkah party at a Trump hotel, and so did all the liberal Zionists. The Anti Defamation League is squabbling on its right with the ZOA and on its left with J Street. Jewish Voice for Peace, a non-Zionist group, gains prestige by the second; and Israel is becoming such a controversial issue that even some Jewish Federations are running away from it. And the young Jews of IfNotNow are shaming the leaders.
It’s finally happening: the Jewish community is gaining maturity and confidence, and demonstrating diversity on Middle East policy. There’s a growing sense among politicians that if a Democrat blows off Haim Saban or a Republican turns his/her back on Sheldon Adelson, they can find someone else in the Jewish community.
Now that Trump is telling the Jewish community and Adelson, you can have the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there is going to be open opposition at last from major segments of the Jewish establishment over what is good for Israel and what is good for American Jews. And a lot of them are going to answer: Palestinian solidarity. This is going to get a lot more interesting.