The day before Donald Trump spoke at the AIPAC conference in Washington, the top morning talk show on Israel Radio began with commentary on a proposal to lower the voting age in Israel to 17.
“Getting young people into the voting booth sounds wonderful,” said co-anchor Beni Teitelbaum. “The question is whether this will accelerate a trend of putting reality TV stars in parliament, because young people will en masse vote for the star ... of some passing televised nonsense.” Teitelbaum is on the political right and has a left-wing partner on the show, which usually begins with one making a pointed remark about a news item and the other rebutting it. This time the left-wing host said nothing, signaling agreement.
There are several ex-journalists in Israel's parliament, but no one who moved over from reality TV. Teitelbaum was really talking about the spectacle of Donald Trump across the Atlantic. The politics of Israel's superpower patron are heavily covered in the Israeli media, and the rise of Trump has produced baffled fascination. The radio host was following form.
Yet if establishment GOP resistance to Trump crumbles, history will note that his achievement of legitimacy began in the unlikely venue of an Israeli newspaper and took a leap forward at the AIPAC convention. Allow me to note, out of patriotic embarrassment, that this has little to do with Israelis and much to do with the bizarre role of Israel in American electoral politics.
The newspaper in question is Israel Hayom, the mass circulation tabloid created by casino mogul and Republican giga-donor Sheldon Adelson. The money-losing paper exists to promote Adelson's agenda, which generally means adulation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Over the last couple of weeks, the newspaper has added a new favorite. Whatever reticence Adelson has shown at home, his Israeli tabloid indicates an embrace of Trump. The day before the Super Tuesday 2 primaries, the Page One story was Rudi Giuliani's endorsement of Trump, with the faded former New York mayor's words in giant type, “Trump Isn't Afraid to Say: Islamic Terror.” Last Friday's edition—the equivalent of a Sunday paper in America—the oversized tabloid headline blared, “Your friend is winning the race”—a quote from Trump in an interview with Israel Hayom's U.S. correspondent.
This is just a sampling. The newspaper might as well have featured a statement from Adelson saying something like, “I don't care if he's erratic on Israel. He'll be the Republican nominee. What matters is retaking the White House, and I've told Bibi to love him.”
That was off-off Broadway. The main show was the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the hawking lobbying behemoth that identifies itself as “America's pro-Israel lobby”—that is, the one and only voice defining what “pro-Israel” means.
At AIPAC conferences, hypocrisy is the tribute that virtue pays to vice, and not the other way around. When presidential candidates speak there, the optimistic understanding of what they say is that they're fibbing and they know it.
This is a bipartisan problem, as Hillary Clinton showed in her speech Monday. To be fair, she did say, truthfully, before an organization that fought bitterly to foil the nuclear agreement with Iran that the “United States, Israel and the world are safer as a result” of the accord. But when the ex-secretary of state's entire criticism of Israeli policy is a six-word reference to settlements, I have to question either her candor or her wisdom—and pray that it's the former that's flawed. When she promised that “one of the first things I'll do in office is invite the Israeli prime minister to the White House,” she implied that she'd put tensions with Netanyahu in the past—and that those tensions were Barack Obama's fault. Clinton certainly knows that a previous Democratic president found Netanyahu just as difficult in the late 1990s.
Bernie Sanders had a simpler way of avoiding a clash with AIPAC—he didn't show up. The speech he wrote for AIPAC contained much of what Democratic politicians should say but rarely, if ever, do: that peace will require “pulling back settlements in the West Bank,” for instance, and that expropriation of Palestinian land “undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security.” But by delivering that speech in Utah, to a different audience, he dodged the hostility he would have met at the conference in Washington—and missed the opportunity to deliver a careful dissent on foreign policy where it would have drawn heavy media coverage.
The fear that Republican candidates meant what they told the AIPAC crowd, naturally, is stronger. John Kasich, the supposedly sane alternative, promised to cancel the Iran deal. Outside of undoing anything that Obama has done, what does he think that will accomplish, except putting Iran back on track to build a nuclear bomb? Ted Cruz recited the campaign mantra that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The scary thought is that unlike all the candidates who have made this promise and thought better the moment they were inaugurated, he might carry through if given the chance—and thereby shred the last scrap of American credibility as a broker in peace negotiations.
All this is business as usual. Trump isn't.
The question isn't whether Trump meant what he said when he told a reporter that Israel should “pay big-league” for U.S. arms rather than receiving them as aid, or when he reversed himself a few minutes later; whether he was sincere a month ago when he said he'd be “a neutral guy” in peace efforts with Israel and the Palestinians or when he spoke before the AIPAC crowd and put all blame for failed talks on the Palestinians. Each of these comments was pandering to a different audience.
Trump's daring, or rather recklessness, is that he doesn't mind being so obvious about pandering, so blatant in his impulsive inconsistency. The sincere part of his message is hatred and his desire to convince you how great he is. He hates Obama. He hates Muslims. The list goes on. Trump shows that the combination of fear and a would-be leader's praise of himself works in America as it has elsewhere.
AIPAC can't excuse inviting Trump on the grounds that it is nonpartisan and invites all candidates. If David Duke were running for president, would the organization claim it had to invite him? If not, it could have reasonably said that Trump's rhetoric is outside the bounds of political decency.
Instead, by giving him the stage, AIPAC allowed Trump to play the role of a candidate like others, with a prepared speech and policies. By insisting that the audience listen politely, it decreed that demagoguery deserves respect.
I doubt this will have much effect on how Jews vote. An overwhelming majority will vote against Trump. But it may affect how the GOP treats Trump, and how it responds if he wins the nomination. AIPAC treated him as legitimate.
If you could read Adelson's Hebrew paper, you could see which way the wind was blowing. And really, it's unfair to suggest that only 17-year-olds would fall for the counterfeit politics of a reality TV star.
This article has been updated.