Every American president in modern times has been staunchly pro-Israel, President Donald Trump perhaps more than most.
RAMAT TRUMP, Golan Heights – It’s been branded a hollow public relations exercise. It may not actually get built. It’s surrounded by hostile military land. And as for the well-known preference for luxury real estate and trademark bling of the family whose name it would ultimately bear, it almost certainly won’t be a shining example anytime soon.
But a planned Israeli community named “Ramat Trump” in Hebrew, or “Trump Heights,” around 12 miles from the Syrian border – right in the heart of territory the United States alone recognizes as legal Israeli territory – nevertheless encapsulates a defining tenet of U.S. foreign policy: Every American president in modern times, citing shared history and values and an unshakeable security commitment, has been staunchly pro-Israel.
President Donald Trump perhaps more than most.
“Trump’s a true friend of Israel,” said Haim Rokach, the head of the Golan Heights Regional Council that is overseeing the fledgling “Trump Heights” initiative in Bruchim, a shabby village, population approximately 7-10, that is part of Kela Alon, a larger adjoining community of 80-90 families who are predominantly secular Israeli Jews.
“There’s no question Trump’s voice on Israeli affairs has been a good thing for us,” said Dulan abu-Saleh, the mayor of the largest Druze town in the Golan Heights.
Druze are an esoteric religious sect of Islamic origin, but characterized by an eclectic system of doctrines. About 25,000 live in the Golan Heights.
Many more reside in Lebanon and Syria.
“Trump’s been a stabilizing force,” said abu-Saleh.
Election 2.0: Israel’s vote redux
On Tuesday, Israelis will vote for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 69, win a record fifth term.
Alternatively, Israel’s longest-serving prime minster, a former commando whose tenure has been defined by repeated promises to keep Israel secure and prosperous, could see his decade-long dominance of the country’s polarized politics abruptly end.
Among major industrialized powers, only Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and German leader Angela Merkel have led for longer.
Moshe Maoz, a Middle East expert at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, said a central issue in the election is competing views over how Jewish a state Israel should be – and what it means anyway to be Jewish in a modern country that is more democratic, more advanced technologically and more powerful militarily than any of its Middle Eastern rivals who surround it, some of whom are bent on its destruction.
Israel has always had a complex secular-religious divide.
But the issue has come to the fore in the past two elections amid growing resentment over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should continue to be exempt from military service and benefit from religiously-tinged state subsidies and other perceived advantages.
“This is a vote about who Israelis want to be, and Israel’s trajectory,” said Maoz.
Jacob Berger, 49, a property developer who lives in Jerusalem and leads an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, said that Israel’s secular Jews were trying to assert control over how people like him educate their children, when they work and how they mix with society.
“If those types of Jews want to spend all their time at the beach in Tel Aviv, that’s fine with me,” he said. “What they shouldn’t do is tell me and my family how to live.”
Jerusalem resident Jacob Berger speaks to USA TODAY in a cafe in the city on Sept. 8, 2019. (Photo: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY)
According to data published by the Pew Research Center, “a nonpartisan fact tank,” in 2016, 81% of Israel’s 8.7 million citizens identify as Jewish, with the remaining 19% split among Arab Muslims (14%), Druze (2%), Christians (2%) and no religion (1%).
Among those who identify as Jewish, approximately 40% are secular; 18% are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox; and the remainder observe a medium level of religious strictness on issues such as marriage, military conscription and gender segregation.
Berger, originally from Belgium, is part of the 18%.
He opposes many modern values and practices.
Israel’s do-over vote is taking place because while Netanyahu’s center-right Likud Party won the most seats in April, he didn’t win a majority and wasn’t able to form a government. Polls predict another stalemate, setting up a possible third election.
Poles apart: Jared Kushner meets with Israeli leader amid political chaos
But the situation is fluid.
Netanyahu’s strongest rival for prime minister is Benny Gantz, the leader of the self-described centrist Blue and White Party. Gantz, 59, is a former head of the Israel Defense Forces. He has bragged about flattening entire residential neighborhoods during two wars Israel fought in the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian enclave on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea that is ruled by Hamas, which the U.S. and other countries, partly or as a whole, have designated a terrorist organization.
Coalition governments are commonplace in Israel politics. Netanyahu needs the support of religious and nationalist parties to stay in power. Gantz would likely need to enter a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister.
Lieberman, 61, is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union and heads the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party. His is also an ultra-nationalist settler.
And settlements, communities of Jews who move to Palestinian areas in the West Bank, a separate self-governing area that is administered by the Fatah-run Palestinian National Authority but effectively subject to Israeli military control, are illegal under international law. They are also considered to be a major impediment to peace in the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been running for more than 70 years.
Never-ending conflict:Palestinians step up rocket attacks as Israel strikes Gaza
A view from inside the Palestinian refugee camp Aida of the West Bank barrier built by Israel. The camp, built in 1950, is located near Bethlehem. (Photo: Mohammad Silwadi for USA TODAY)
Trump goes ‘beyond’ others on Israel
Netanyahu has tried to capitalize on his close relationship with Trump.
Indeed, it was his idea to “honor” the U.S. president with “Trump Heights.”
It marks the first time that Israel has named a new community after a U.S. leader since President Harry Truman. According to documents featured in his presidential library, Truman weighed “personal, political and strategic concerns” in 1948 when he went against the advice of the State Department and recognized the new Jewish state.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall feared, correctly as it turned out, that any new Jewish state would be immediately attacked by its Arab enemies.
It could also jeopardize American access to oil.
Truman believed it was a risk worth taking.
Today, “Kfar Truman” is a moshav or village in central Israel. (In 2008, “George W. Bush Plaza,” a modest square in central Jerusalem, was dedicated to the former U.S. president by a private foundation for his support for the Israeli people.)
“Trump has probably been the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman recognized Israel,” political analyst Bill Schneider told news outlet The Hill in July.
Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a Washington, D.C.-based pro-Israel think tank, said that he views Trump’s pro-Israel stance as more of a historical “reversion to the norm” after eight years of President Barack Obama. Obama and Netanyahu had a difficult political chemistry. Israel’s leader felt abandoned by Obama’s stewardship of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which Israel strongly opposed.
Makovsky conceded that Trump has “gone beyond” other presidents on Israel.
In fact, Trump has dismantled many of the widely held assumptions of the U.S. and international foreign policy establishment when it comes to Israel.
A view of the “Trump Heights” sign, a fledgling Israeli development in the Golan Heights, on Sept. 9, 2019. (Photo: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY)
He relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the holy city that Palestinians claim as part of their future capital. He withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement.While most western powers view Iran’s nuclear activities as a considerable threat, for Israel, its proximity to the Islamic Republic and Tehran’s periodic vows to “annihilate” the Jewish state mean that Iran is a daily existential worry.
“Netanyahu has basically been telling Israelis that the nuclear agreement will lead to another Holocaust, although he never uses that word,” said Amos Yadlin, a former senior military intelligence officer with the Israel Defense Forces, and now executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Yadlin said while the deal was not perfect because many of its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities were temporary, and it did not address Iran’s ballistic missiles program or support for militant groups in Lebanon and Syria, he believes it would have been better for Trump stay in the deal for longer, coming out at a later date if needed.
Ticking clock:Iran reduces nuke deal compliance, warns over accord
Trump has also overlooked Jewish settlement expansion on land claimed by Palestinians, closed the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, D.C. – its de facto embassy – and cut off U.S. funding to organizations that work on Palestinian issues. A long-promised Israeli-Palestinian peace plan from the White House has been drafted by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; Israel advisers, Jason Greenblatt and Avi Berkowitz; and David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
All four men have deep religious and educational ties to Israel – factors that have undermined their legitimacy as honest brokers in the eyes of many Palestinians.
In fact, prior to taking up his ambassador role, Friedman was president of the American Friends of Bet El Yeshiva Center, an organization that sponsors academic study in Bet El, an Israeli settlement that was established on Palestinian land in 1977.
“We see the Trump team as the Israeli team,” said Khaldoun Barghouti, a Palestinian journalist and analyst of Israeli affairs from Ramallah in the West Bank, a landlocked area sandwiched between Israel’s eastern frontier and the Jordan River Valley. Israel places onerous security restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank that prevent many from traveling or visiting friends and family in Jerusalem or Gaza.
Israel says these restrictions, along with a West Bank security barrier and complex patchwork of fences and checkpoints, are necessary to stop suicide bombers.
“Security is always our number one concern,” said Inna Rozman, 36, who works in Israel’s high-tech sector and lives near the border with the Gaza Strip, where Hamas-made rockets fired over the border into Israel are a regular occurrence.
A plaque embedded in the facade of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is seen in the holy city on Sept. 8, 2019. (Photo: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY)
“The U.S. team consults extensively with Palestinian representatives and experts, including members of the Palestinian business, academic and philanthropic community, as well as those with close relationships with Palestinian leadership,” an embassy spokesman told USA TODAY in emailed comments, replying to a question about why there are no Americans with links to Palestinians involved in the plan.
“The Jerusalem Embassy has deep and broad contacts within Palestinian society.”
Ambassador Friedman said that the “the embassy move fulfilled the will of the American people as expressed through their elected representatives.”
He said that while the move “perhaps rais(es) some friction in the short term, (it) has created a foundation upon which real peace discussions may proceed.”
Still, Palestinians insist there has been minimal outreach.
“Trump’s so-called peace plan should be called the ‘No Deal of the Century,'” said Mustafa Barghouti, a former Palestinian lawmaker and onetime presidential candidate.
“Everything that has leaked about this plan, and every statement that has come from Trump’s envoys have shown only that they are biased toward Israel, and that they are intending to fulfill and implement the exact ideas and wishes of Netanyahu,” he said, noting the Palestinian leadership has rejected the peace plan unseen because it is not expected to address Palestinian demands for a political solution, for full statehood, and instead revolve around an “economic vision” for boosting the economy.
The White House has said the plan will be released sometime after Tuesday’s election.
Greenblatt, the U.S. official in charge of Trump’s peace plan, has announced he is stepping down. Trump fired his National Security Adviser John Bolton, an aggressively pro-Israel and anti-Iran advocate. What this means for Trump’s overarching attitude toward Israel, the Palestinians and his Middle East policy more generally is not clear.
Trump-Bolton breakup was inevitable: They clashed over Iran, North Korea, more
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has stayed relatively quiet over Netanyahu’s election pledge to apply its sovereignty – annex – the northern Dead Sea and entire Jordan Valley, which runs through part of the West Bank and is home to around 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 Israeli settlers, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli humanitarian rights group. To do so, would amount to a serious escalation of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian struggle, said Maoz, the Middle East expert at Hebrew University.
A signed placed outside a Palestinian village in the West Bank warns Israeli citizens to stay out or risk their lives. Photo: Sept. 11, 2019. (Photo: Mohammad Silwadi for USA TODAY)
‘Never a greater friend in the White House’
Trump has boosted Israel in other ways.
On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he spoke with Netanyahu to discuss moving forward with a possible mutual defense treaty between Israel and the U.S. that Makovsky, of JINSA, who is also a former Pentagon official and has been making recommendations to the U.S. and Israeli governments on the potential pact, said could operate in a similar way to NATO’s Article 5: An attack on one member is an attack on all.
“Thank you my dear friend President @realDonaldTrump,” Netanyahu tweeted in reply. “The Jewish State has never had a greater friend in the White House.”
Since the end of World War II, Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, most of it for its military, according to the Congressional Research Service, a government agency that provides research and analytical support to Congress.
For 2020, Trump has requested $3.3 billion in military aid for Israel, per the service.
He has contemporaneously halted all aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
“A lot of the infrastructure projects – schools, roads – have just stopped,” said Naser Qadous, a Palestinian who manages agricultural projects in the West Bank for Anera, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works on development and refugee issues.
Trump has also stood by denials from Israeli officials over claims that emerged last week that the country placed cellphone-surveillance devices near the White House.
Allegations of spying on a close ally are not unheard of, but Trump’s muted response raised a few eyebrows: “I would find it really hard to believe,” he said.
Trump has also appeared to openly play party politics when it comes to Israel.
When he discovered that Democratic lawmakers Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota were planning to visit Israel and the West Bank last month, Trump urged Israel to prohibit access to the two elected members of Congress. Then, he applauded from the sidelines after Israel initially banned the congresswomen from visiting the nation because of their support for a movement that promotes various forms of boycott and sanctions against Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians.
Muftiya Tlaib, Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s grandmother, sits on the front porch of her home in Beit Ur Al-Fauqa, a village in the West Bank, on Sept. 10, 2019. (Photo: Mohammad Silwadi for USA TODAY)
“Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!” Trump tweeted, after the decision. He has also said Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats are “disloyal to Israel.” When Wayne Allyn Root, a right-wing conspiracy theorist, likened Trump to a “King of Israel,” Trump thanked him in a tweet.
Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, was later granted permission by Israel, on humanitarian grounds, to visit her elderly grandmother, who lives in the West Bank.
She turned the opportunity down.
‘Complete setup’:Trump slams Tlaib over Israel approval to see grandmother
A Pew Research Center study in May found 42% t of U.S. Jews believe Trump favors Israelis too much. Although the same study found that 47% of American Jews believe that Trump is “striking the right balance between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Six percent said Trump was too biased toward the Palestinians.
The remaining 4% weren’t sure.
‘We don’t need Trump to recognize Golan’
The Golan Heights is a fertile region of cattle ranches, orchards and vineyards.
The area is also filled with bunkers, tanks and impromptu war memorials.
On its southwestern edge sits the Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe that Jesus performed miracles such as walking on water and feeding the multitude.
While the Golan Heights has been administered as part of Israel since 1981, the United Nations, European Union and all nations except the U.S. consider it Israel-occupied Syrian territory. That’s due to Trump, too. He drew international criticism when he signed a presidential proclamation acknowledging the validity of Israel’s claim over the strategic plateau, which supplies Israel with a third of its water, on March 25.
A view of Syria just a few miles inside the Golan Heights, territory Israel considers its own but that the international community says it annexed illegally. (Photo: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY)
“This should have been done, I would say, numerous presidents ago. But for some reason they didn’t do it. I am very honored to have done it,” Trump said in the Oval Office at the time, as he stood alongside a beaming Netanyahu.
Netanyahu thanked Trump for his “incredible support” for Israel.
Still, in Bruchim-Kela Alon, where it remains far from clear whether “Trump Heights” will get off the ground, Chicago-born David Katz was deeply bothered by what he sees as many Israelis’ uncritical embrace of Trump because of his perceived pro-Israel stance.
“Did you hear that Trump wanted to buy Greenland and the Danes said ‘thanks, but no thanks?’ Well, he could get Israel for free. We’d love to be part of his kingdom,” said Katz, 50, sarcastically, as he sat on the porch of his home in an area captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, a brief but bloody conflict between Israel and the Arab nations of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel emerged victorious.
“We don’t need Trump or anyone else to recognize Golan for us. It’s ours,” said Katz, adding: “If this village deserves to be named after anyone it should be (Menachem) Begin.” He was referring to the founder of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Israel’s sixth prime minister and leader when it asserted civil administration over the Golan Heights.
Katz moved to Israel with his parents when he was three-years-old. He works as a horse trainer and cattle hand and lives with his wife and four daughters here.
“Bibi, our king, wants to give Trump, the Americans’ king, something with his name on it,” said Katz, joking. “Bibi” is Netanyahu’s widely used nickname in Israel.
Yet the idea of the Trump name presiding over an area ringed with dry, high yellow grass, weather-worn farming equipment, and where smoke and loud booms from Israel’s frequent engagement with Iran-backed militants in nearby Lebanon and Syria can be regularly seen and heard, is not without its ardent supporters.
“Trump’s name will bring investment to our area for sure,” insisted Hilik Dahan, 49, another Bruchim-Kela Alon resident who rents out vacation cabins next to his home.
“The Israel-U.S. alliance is the best in history,” he said, repeating a variation on a phrase that can be heard over and over again in Israel: “Trump is our true friend.”
Dahan added that he thinks most of Bruchim-Kela Alon’s residents are broadly in favor of “Trump Heights,” although he does not think the question has been systematically posed outright to all the families who live in the community. Many don’t want to say.
But others with a stake in what happens here also claim a “silent majority” on the “Trump Heights” issue. And they are taking a page out of the Trump-as-real-estate-magnate playbook. They have started legal action to prevent the development from moving ahead. They allege “Trump Heights” is little more than a brazen attempt by Israel’s government to flatter a U.S. president who has shown himself to be especially susceptible to honeyed words of admiration from North Korea to Saudi Arabia.
“The whole idea is complete political bull****,” said Uri Sitnik, 59, a carpenter and pottery maker who lives in the community and is helping to spearhead resistance to “Trump Heights,” which Israel’s opposition lawmakers say has no budget or plan.
Sitnik shared official zoning documents with USA TODAY that appeared to substantiate the claim, disputed by Rokach, the Golan Heights Regional Council chief, that “Trump Heights” will trample on the property rights of residents by claiming that Bruchim and Kela Alon are technically two separate places for development purposes.
Rokach insists these residents are mistaken; that Bruchim was never part of Kela Alon.
Still, for Katz, Sitnik and other secular Israeli Jews who live in the area, there is also another reason to push back against the proposal. It is one that mirrors some of the conversations about Israel’s election that have been taking place on the national stage –about the separation of synagogue and state, and how to strike the right balance.
“This community is not a religious place,” said Sitnik, referring to indications that “Trump Heights” has been earmarked as a community for modern Orthodox Jews.
Ultra-religious Israeli Jews are a rare sight in the Golan Heights, an area according to Israeli statistics that’s home to 50,000 people, including roughly 22,000 Jewish Israelis.
“When my parents emigrated to Israel, in those days it was still real Zionism compared to what’s happening today,” said Katz, the Israeli cowboy, who feels Israel’s government has strayed from its path of being a homeland for Jews to one increasingly subject to special interests, whether commercial, religious or to leaders like Trump.
For now, “Trump Heights” amounts to a large gilded sign with the U.S. and Israeli flags intertwined and the name of the community written in English and Hebrew.
This sign was unveiled with much fanfare during a ceremony in June attended by Netanyahu and Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel who is a former lawyer for the Trump Organization, the president’s private business. On the day of the ceremony, which took place in a carefully choreographed setting in Bruchim in front of Israel’s press corps, Friedman described “Trump Heights” as a birthday president to Trump.
The president had turned 73 a few days prior.
Still, when USA TODAY visited the area in early September not much was happening.
The “Trump Heights” sign had been moved to the village’s dusty access road. It’s now located across from a building that the area’s long-term dwellers had been hoping to turn into a small business park. The land around it was recently cleared of mines.
Israel’s vote, Palestinian concerns, Iran – they weren’t, but seemed a universe away.
As did Trump.
On the back of his sign, local graffiti artists had scrawled a few intriguing messages.
“Shlomo and Jacob were here,” read one.
“Yankale: the traveling guitar player,” said another.
The last one, without exclamation, said: “Oh my God.”
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