Donald Trump announced Thursday that he “has decided to postpone” his scheduled trip to Israel, where he was to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, until “after I become President of the U.S.” The news, which came after Netanyahu repudiated Trump’s latest anti-Muslim provocations, was a relief to many observers in both countries who worried that a visit by the now world renowned anti-Muslim real estate mogul would inflame an already tense political situation in the Holy Land.
Trump will never be president, so that meeting will never take place. But as Sean Trende notes, it is no longer inconceivable that he will be the GOP nominee. Buoyed by Americans’ acute anxiety about terrorism in the wake of the ISIS-related attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Trump has risen to his most commanding position yet in the Republican field by peddling various deeply illiberal (or, if you like, proto-fascist) measures for stopping terror: closures of mosques, a database of Muslims, a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Trump’s exchange with Netanyahu highlights the fact that Israel—and even Israel’s major right-of-center party, Likud—has largely avoided succumbing to these kinds of impulses, despite facing a terrorist threat orders of magnitudes greater than America and European countries. In addition to conventional suicide bombings, Israelis regularly endure rocket barrages from their neighbors, and are now facing a particularly gruesome wave of Palestinian knife attacks. Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s center-right governing coalition—despite periodic lapses—has largely adhered to basic democratic principles, respecting the religious liberties and civil rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. Genuinely anti-democratic right-wing politicians, like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, do have a significant following in Israel, but their more illiberal proposals have mostly been kept at bay.
Jihadists are now exposing Western societies—especially in Europe—to a low-intensity version of the terrorist threat that Israel has lived with for decades, and learned, despairingly, to endure. The effect on American and European politics has been swift and pronounced, with Trump rising in the U.S., Front National edging closer to the presidency than it has in more than a decade, and rightwing populist parties gaining power across the Continent.
If Trump was given a major boost by the attacks in Paris and California (with a majority of Republicans, according to some polls, in support of his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States), how might American politics change if Americans were being knifed on the streets by Islamists on a daily basis? And perhaps more to the point, if Front National pulled off one of its best electoral performances ever in the wake of the slaughter in France’s capital (which, incidentally, also led the socialist French administration to start shutting down mosques), how might the Front National perform if the country were surrounded by hostile countries on all sides, and if Parisians were being subjected to regular missile barrages from Islamists in Luxembourg?
Trump’s continued dominance of the Republican field should be at least somewhat sobering to bien pensant liberals—in America, but especially in Europe—who lecture Israel about its failings. It’s difficult for societies to retain their liberal character in the face of a sustained terrorist threat, but the Israeli right-of-center coalition has successfully warded off bids from its right flank to push the country toward something like Trumpism. In the context of the global rise of the far-Right, this is an impressive feat.