Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a popular commentator on politics. He is a professor of history at McGill University, a leading Zionist activist and the author of a dozen books. His most recent book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and People, was co-authored with Natan Sharansky. He currently lives in Jerusalem. Troy will be discussing “Trump or Biden? Who is better for Israel and the Jews?” Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. on Zoom. Register at www.congregationhabonim.org. He recently answered questions from The CJN, by email, about the impact of recent American presidents on Israel.
The CJN: President Joe Biden has only been in office for a few weeks at this point, but that hasn’t stopped people from analyzing every move his administration makes in relation to the Middle East. What are your early impressions?
Troy: First impression – he’s really, really busy. He’s got a galloping disease, a cratering economy, and a vaccination program that shows American smarts in the development but Soviet inefficiency and idiocy in its execution. So, it’s not surprising that the Middle East is not positioned in the same spot on his agenda as it may be on ours. Second, the pro-Israel community has to show some maturity and avoid calling Joe Biden and key aides like Tony Blinken “anti-Israel” — we know what someone who is anti-Israel is and does – and that ain’t Biden or most Democrats. Finally, there is nevertheless a bit of a chill in the air. It’s hard to know how much that has to do with (Israeli Prime Minister) Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s love affair with Donald Trump and ego clash with Barack Obama – and how much has to do with Israel. So, so far, cautious optimism… with some very clear warning signs, especially about Iran.
The CJN: Does Biden, like Obama, believe Iran can be enticed into good behaviour? What pitfalls might lie down this path, compared to the Trump administration’s position on Iran? What are the potential opportunities?
Troy: This Iran debate is playing out on many levels. It is not only key to the Obama legacy, it’s the greatest diplomatic achievement of many leading Biden staffers, most of whom continue to boast about the deal without any second thoughts or critique. That’s not just worrying – it’s terrifying. It also plays into the binary oversimplification of a traumatized, polarized America that everything Obama is good, everything Trump is bad (or vice versa). Related to that of course, is the question what went wrong? Many of us who read the reports about all the intelligence Israel seized – and read Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi’s excellent article in The Atlantic, believe that the deal itself was flawed because it was based on Iranian lies. So, the return to nuclear progress we have seen is not because Trump started pressuring Iran, but because the cheating was embedded in the agreement. Obama-ites insist that suspending the agreement is what led to the surges — and it’s really hard to prove one way or the other. Ultimately, however, we have to stop looking at Iran through an American partisan lens and look at it through an Iranian lens. I, for one, am convinced that economic and diplomatic pressure works and being too soft has consistently emboldened the mullahs. There are some signs that Biden is at least aware that a renewed deal has to deal with Iran’s commitment to being a regional troublemaker by clipping its wings a bit. But it’s not clear how aggressive he is willing to be.
The CJN: Biden has long expressed the view that settlements impede peace. What does that mean, after the Trump presidency, for Israeli-American relations?
Troy: The cheap answer is it depends on who wins the next Israeli election. But, in fact, unless Yair Lapid wins, the easy money would be to bet on a rocky road — especially because Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar sound more ideological than Bibi when it comes to settlements. I say “sound” because (the late) Ariel Sharon explained that things look very different from the prime minister’s chair, this is why I am an historian! It’s hard enough to predict the past, I can’t begin to predict the future!
The CJN: After the election, and the storming of the Capitol, are you seeing a shift in attitude of Jewish Republicans toward Trump, maybe even their party? Is there an opportunity for Biden to make inroads in Trump-supporting Jewish communities? What sort of relations might Trump have with Jewish supporters if/when he decides to run in 2024?
Troy: Two words: Nikki Haley. Nikki Haley is an abashedly pro-Israel Republican who lacks the Trumpian baggage and has wisely started distancing herself from him and his legacy. But there’s a deeper issue here before we get to what Republicans will do, they and the Democrats should be looking back over the last four years in shame. Most Jewish Democrats couldn’t even thank Trump over the move to Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords – in fact, their enthusiasm for those and other breakthroughs feels muted because they chose to taint those ground-breaking moments with the stench of Trump. Even more outrageous were those Republican Jews – especially Orthodox Jewish Republicans who talk about midot and musar – (standards and ethics) and were struck dumb no matter how demagogic or dishonest or abusive Trump was. Support for a politician or a political party in a democracy is not fealty to the sultan. The failure to break with the pack is one of the great failures of our times, and American Jews across the political spectrum fed the polarization and the problem.
The CJN: In your upcoming talk, you will be tackling the question: “Trump or Biden: Who is Better for Israel and the Jews?” I don’t want to spoil the answer, but I will ask a related question: is it possible that one might be better for Israel and the other for “the Jews”? Or are the two so inextricably tied as to make that impossible?
Troy: That’s a very elegant framing – to say that Trump had Israel’s back but Biden reflects the Jewish soul. But it’s a little too cutesy, and does not deal with the real world. In real terms, Donald Trump was great for Israel – which is great for the Jews. On the other hand, in real terms, Donald Trump was terrible for American democracy- and for democracies everywhere – which is terrible not just for American Jews but for Israelis who live in a sister democracy. People looking to affirm their prejudices should watch the TV station of their choice or attend a political rally. In my upcoming talk, we are going to acknowledge the contradictions, sit with the complexities, analyze them, and see what lessons we can learn — for American Jews, for Canadian Jews, for Israel, and for lovers of liberal democracy and constructive nationalism worldwide.