Repudiated presidents and Israel

The end of the Trump Administration has prompted much stock-taking. Many have argued that Donald Trump was good for Israel. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, brokering the Abraham Accords, applying “maximum pressure” on Iran—it’s no wonder that most Israelis would have preferred a second term for Trump.

Yet by the usual measure of presidential success, he was a dud. He joins the short list of only five American presidents who failed to win reelection over the past century. And he has the unique ignominy of having been impeached twice. Many pundits, partisan and otherwise, are predicting that he’ll go down in history as “the worst president ever.”

In truth, nothing is as unpredictable as history. But at the moment, Trump looks like yet another variation on a familiar type: the repudiated president who’s done well by Israel. Scanning the past half-century, the previous two presidents who did the most to secure Israel and bring it peace also were cast aside by the American public. The comparison is revealing, although its lessons are elusive.

“Nixon did not break a single promise…”

The first case is Richard Nixon. From the outset, Israeli leaders and officials liked what they saw in Nixon—none more so than Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. In a 1972 interview, he said of Nixon that “never in America’s history had any president gone so far in his pro-Israeli declarations or in expressing America’s commitment to Israel’s security.” Coming in an election year, that caused a firestorm, and led to a Washington Post editorial decrying Rabin as an “undiplomatic diplomat.”

At the time, Rabin insisted he had no intention of playing favorites. But in his memoirs, he described Nixon as “the more desirable candidate from Israel’s point of view” even as compared to Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and expressed disappointment that “America’s Jews did not share my opinion.” He worried that this dearth of Jewish supporters might turn Nixon against Israel. To his relief, he found that Nixon’s views on Israel “were founded on more than political expediency. My fears proved to be groundless.”

The proof arrived in October 1973, when Israel came under a combined, surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. It was Nixon who, in the words of some Israelis, “saved Israel,” first by sending Israel massive arms shipments by air and sea, and then by facing down the Soviet backers of Egypt, to the point of threatening nuclear war. Nor did Nixon flinch when Arab oil states retaliated with a punishing oil boycott.

Israelis felt vindicated for trusting a man many Americans reviled as “Tricky Dick.” “I knew that President Nixon had promised to help us,” wrote Israel’s then-prime minister, Golda Meir, in her memoirs,

and I knew from my past experience with him that he would not let us down. Let me, at this point, repeat something that I have said often before (usually to the extreme annoyance of many of my American friends). However history judges Richard Nixon—and it is probable that the verdict will be very harsh—it must also be put on the record forever that he did not break a single one of the promises he made to us.

When Nixon ultimately resigned in disgrace over Watergate, it pained Meir:

It should not come as a surprise that his resignation—under circumstances unprecedented in American history—caused me deep regret. I was familiar with his virtues and his faults, both of which he possessed in abundance. But above all I had great respect for his broad vision and understanding of global politics…. [H]is doctrine that the United States should help those nations willing to help themselves found very concrete expression in regard to Israel…. Nixon helped to provide Israel with more arms than any other American president. For this, and for his strict avoidance of imposing an unwanted political solution on Israel, he is deserving of this country’s profound gratitude.

In rankings by presidential historians, Nixon has risen a bit over the years, but he still figures in the bottom third of all presidents. In contrast, he would be at or near the top of the list of “best friends” of Israel in the White House.

“Carter has done more and gone farther….”

The second case is Jimmy Carter. Today, it’s usual to view Carter as hostile to Israel, based on the harsh criticism he leveled at Israeli policy after leaving the White House. His 2006 New York Times bestseller, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, made him anathema to supporters of Israel.

But that wasn’t the perception of Carter when he was president, and Carter’s success in brokering Israel’s peace with Egypt at Camp David today looms large, in comparison with the many failures of subsequent presidents. Without Carter’s unique set of skills, Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 might have led nowhere.

In late 1979, Moshe Dayan, who had been at Camp David, sang Carter’s praises. “Carter has done more and gone farther than any former president in order to bring peace between us and the Arabs,” he announced. As part of that peace deal, “we have achieved first-class agreements, better than Israel ever had with the United States.”

The later praise by Israeli future-president Ezer Weizman, who also witnessed Carter at Camp David, carried even more weight, since he offered it long after Carter’s political demise: “From an Israeli viewpoint,” he wrote,

Jimmy Carter had been a good president. He was the prime mover in the conclusion of the Camp David agreements and in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that resulted. He granted Israel lavish economic and military aid.

But as in the case of Nixon, here, too, American Jews didn’t appreciate what Carter had done:

There was no reason why American Jews should not have supported [Carter in 1980], as they had supported other Democratic candidates like Humphrey, Johnson, and Kennedy—and Carter himself in 1976. But that was not how it worked out. Only 54 percent of Jewish voters opted for Carter [over Republican Ronald Reagan]—a relatively low proportion of Jewish backing for a Democratic candidate.

Of course, it wasn’t only the Jews. No incumbent president was repudiated by the electorate as decisively as Carter in 1980. Reagan’s electoral college victory, 489 to 49, represented the highest number of electoral votes ever won by a non-incumbent.

Carter’s presidency also ended in humiliation. Iran freed the U.S. diplomatic hostages it had held for 444 days only as Carter left the White House on his last day in office. He is regularly ranked by presidential historians in the bottom half of the class.

But the Egyptian-Israeli peace, his greatest achievement, is still considered the gold standard of peacemaking in the Middle East. Another president, Bill Clinton, ached to replicate that miracle in his own Camp David talks with Israel and the Palestinians in 2000. When he fell short, he angrily told Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

No one today would call Carter a “great friend of Israel” (although Menachem Begin did just that in 1977). But just as Nixon rescued Israel in its most desperate war, Carter secured for Israel its most precious peace.

“The best friend Israel has ever had…”

Donald Trump now joins the short list of repudiated presidents who did well by Israel.

It will take some time to sort out just how much good he did. As it now looks, Trump’s actions regarding Israel don’t rise to the level of Nixon’s or Carter’s, for sheer impact. That’s because circumstances didn’t present him with an opportunity to make a comparable kind of difference. “We have the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a year ago. But Trump’s “best friendship” was never stress-tested, so we’ll never know.

That’s the role of chance in history. One man, Egypt’s Sadat, created opportunities for both Nixon and Carter. On Nixon’s watch, he launched a war that shook Israel’s foundations. On Carter’s watch, he shook Israel again with a surprise visit to Jerusalem. If Sadat hadn’t acted, there would have been no openings for Nixon and Carter to exploit.

Nothing of similar magnitude happened on Trump’s watch, and his initiatives toward Israel were mostly cost-free acts of recognition. His most substantive achievement, the Abraham Accords, required real diplomatic ingenuity, but it’s too early to judge their long-term significance for Israel, or gauge their resilience in crisis conditions. All that’s certain is that as Trump leaves Washington, he has the potential to be remembered as a president who made a historic difference to Israel. But that’s a call only future historians will be positioned to make.

Not the president you’d like to have

So is there some explanatory connection between leaving the White House under a cloud, and having done exceptional good for Israel? Or is it just coincidence?

If there’s a connection, it’s not obvious, at least to me. But even if there isn’t one, there may still be a few lessons here, for both Israelis and American Jews.

In each election cycle, there is much brouhaha over which candidate is the greater “friend of Israel.” But the evidence is that doing right by Israel counts for only so much in American politics. As we’ve seen, a gallant president can rescue Israel from peril or bring its adversaries to the peace table, but neither will compensate for mistakes he makes arising from vanity, arrogance, or miscalculation.

But even a floundering president must protect U.S. strategic interests. And a wounded one is more prone to obsess over posterity’s judgment. It’s in these two realms that helping Israel adds value to a president, and it’s here that Israel and its supporters should focus their appeals. The political payoff for supporting Israel may be negligible, but the other rationales are persuasive, and deserve greater emphasis.

For Israel, it’s vital to remain non-partisan and non-judgmental when it comes to presidents. Not only does Israel have no decisive influence over who will be president. Israel doesn’t fully control the timing of crises that might require presidential intervention.

When that happens, it shouldn’t matter to Israel what controversies or scandals embroil the president. It shouldn’t matter if he’s a self-righteous prig (like Carter) or a “grab ’em by the pussy” bully (like Trump) or even a country-club antisemite (like Nixon). To paraphrase a quotable American, you go to war with the president you have, not the president you’d like to have.

These failings do matter to American Jews: unlike Israelis, they have the right to take sides, pass judgment, and cast votes. But if they care about the well-being of Israel, they shouldn’t busily delegitimate supporters of Israel on the other side of the partisan aisle. It’s self-defeating, because you don’t know whether your hero or your antihero will be in the Oval Office precisely at the moment of crisis for Israel. If it’s not your hero, Israel will have to rely not on you, but on your opponents.

A certain dispassion may be especially hard to maintain when you view the president as insufferable, as many American Jews viewed Nixon, Carter, and Trump. That’s the time to take a deep breath, remember past precedents, and repeat: “The work of the righteous is done by others.”

Cross-posted at Times of Israel, here.