Wearing almost identical dark suits and red ties, President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lavished praise on each other in a joint appearance at the White House on Monday, with the latter hailing Trump as the greatest friend Israel has ever had as the president took steps to reverse decades of US foreign policy toward Israel.
Around the same time, Rep. Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, released a statement clarifying his remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference from the previous night. In his speech, Hoyer’s criticism of people who bring up “dual loyalty” in talking about US foreign policy toward Israel was largely seen as a rebuke of a single member of his own party: Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose recent comments have stirred a heated debate among Democrats on Israel.
The split-screen moment wasn’t necessarily a coincidence.
Ahead of his 2020 reelection, Trump has been looking to take advantage of any cracks within the Democratic Party. For the last few months — including in his State of the Union speech — Trump has latched onto a broad portrayal of all Democrats as socialists who were out of step with the economic views of the country, bringing up progressive firebrand New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policy priorities as though they were held by all Democrats.
And in recent weeks, as Democrats have continued to deal with shifting views toward Israel within their own party, following comments made by Omar, Trump is employing the same tactic: He has attacked the party broadly as “anti-Jewish” in his comments and tweets, while taking steps to bolster his pro-Israel image to draw a contrast whenever possible.
“The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel,” Trump told reporters Friday. “There’s no question about that. And it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them. But they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.”
During Netanyahu’s visit — weeks before the Israeli leader under corruption charges faces a tough election — Trump signed a proclamation with a key political priority for Netanyahu: recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a strategically located area along Israel’s northern border that has been long disputed. The move is seen as a major reversal in long-held US foreign policy and a political gift to Netanyahu.
“We’re celebrating the Golan Heights,” Trump said Monday. “It’s something that I’ve been hearing about for many years, from many people. I’ve been studying for years. And this should have been done, I would say, numerous presidents ago. But for some reason, they didn’t do it, and I’m very honored to have done it.”
Trump has repeatedly spoken about his decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in a similar way at campaign rallies and official events. So much so that, in a speech at Trump’s Florida club Mar-a-Lago on Saturday, Sen. Lindsey Graham reportedly brought up Trump’s decision to move the embassy with a joke: “There will be a Trump hotel [in Jerusalem] in 10 years.”
Trump was expected to spend more than an hour with Netanyahu on Monday and join him for dinner Tuesday night, but Netanyahu, who was also supposed to address the AIPAC conference, had to cut his trip short after a rocket hit central Israel.
Republicans have repeatedly pointed out that none of the 2020 Democratic contenders were scheduled to speak at the AIPAC conference. Presidential candidates, however, typically are only invited to address the conference in election years.
Trump did not address the conference himself. But while he was emphasizing his cozy relationship with Netanyahu at the White House, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at AIPAC on his behalf, calling the president “the greatest friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel ever to sit in the Oval Office of the White House.”
Pence used the opportunity not just to draw attention to the president’s Golan Heights proclamation, but he also carried the president’s message, stressing the emerging divisions within the opposing party on Israel.
“It’s astonishing to think that the party of Harry Truman, which did so much to help create the State of Israel, has been co-opted by people who promote rank, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and work to undermine the broad American consensus of support for Israel,” Pence said, adding falsely that the “party that has been the home of so many American Jews … struggled to muster the votes to unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism in a resolution.”
House Democrats were united in a recent vote for a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, among other racist behavior. Twenty-three Republicans voted against the measure.
“President Trump and I couldn’t be more proud to stand with all of you today, tomorrow, and always, to strengthen the ties that bind America and Israel,” Pence said. “We here, in the United States, admire Israel and her success. In fact, we marvel at it.”