8/24/18 Trumpgate Arrives in Israel

The newscast on one of Israel’s main channels opened tonight with “Trump Gate: Donald Trump’s hardest fight of his life.” Until this week, most Israelis paid little attention to the investigations into President Donald J. Trump — assuming that much like the probes into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, those inquiries would go on forever. However, the guilty verdict against Paul Manafort, along with the guilty plea by Michael Cohen changed all that. Now, with Trump actually talking about impeachment, the scrutiny has suddenly reached the Israeli consciousness.

I am constantly asked — What does it mean? What are the chances Trump will be removed from office? The American impeachment and conviction process, which is not understood well by many Americans, is totally foreign to Israelis, though the Israeli media has been trying to enlighten them.

Wednesday's news unnerved many Israelis who believe Trump’s support of Israel is critical. Israel remains one of the bastions of support for Trump, but those sentiments are not universal. One American born Israeli who trained as a lawyer told me of the disagreement she had had that morning with her husband. She was happy to see Mueller’s successes and hoped they portend a future without Trump as President; her husband, on the other hand, was very upset, asserting Israel needs Trump.

Trump's dominance in the news was not just the result of his legal troubles. His speech Wednesday night in West Virginia made headlines here, when he stated “he had taken Jerusalem off the table of negotiations, but Israel would have to make a significant concession.” That night, Trump reiterated that Israel will pay a “higher price” in peace negotiations with the Palestinians after his decision to move the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump continued: “The Palestinians will ‘get something very good’ in return for the embassy move, because it's ‘their turn’ next.” Trump’s remarks set off alarm bells on the Israeli right-wing, who believe Trump's support came without any strings attached.

US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who spent the first half of the week in Israel, immediately tried to assure Israelis that nothing had changed and that there were no immediate plans for any American action. Bolton then went on to say that making sure Iran never received nuclear weapons remained the highest US priority — something that was certainly music to Israeli ears. How the United States would accomplish that mission, i.e., beyond applying sanctions, was less clear.

America appears to have influenced Israel in a different sort of way this week. Minister of Public Safety Gilad Erdan — seemingly out of nowhere — announced a significant easing of regulations governing gun ownership in the country. Erdan gave the impression he had been reading literature from the National Rifle Association, contending that more guns would make Israelis safer. Until now, you had to show a very real need to possess a firearm, e.g., either because you live in a border community, or you work in a dangerous job (e.g., security guard, or someone who carries diamonds, etc.) in order to legally acquire a gun. Under the new law, all veterans of combat infantry units will be allowed to obtain a gun. This new decision was immediately decried by many, fearing it would increase the cases of domestic violence and other gun deaths.

Finally, this week, Israel bid farewell to one of the last of a generation — Uri Avineri, journalist, activist, and veteran of Israel’s War of Independence, who served in the Knesset for a short time. Avineri was considered the father of the Israeli left, and despite being in his 90s, his voice did not still until his death. The memorial service, held in Tel Aviv, was a gathering of many who had spent their lives fighting what they would describe as “the fight for peace”. Those who came to honor Avineri, were there to bid farewell to both the man, and maybe the era. Nothing symbolized the failure of Israel’s left-wing more than when Knesset member Ayman Odeh (the head of the Joint Arab list) spoke and turned to the speaker before him (a representative of the Palestinian Authority) and practically pleaded that the Authority should name a street in Ramallah (their capital, for the moment) after Avineri; to show how the Palestinians truly desire peace and cooperation. The belief by the Israeli public that the Palestinians do not truly want peace — is probably the single biggest cause for the diminishing support the left has suffered in recent years.

This week has been disquieting for Tel Avivans — regardless of one’s political views.