Trump or Israel: Who Is More Friendly to Dictators?

by Ali Gharib

The revanchist Zionist group, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), is at it again: back at the task of keeping the Republican Party pure of heart, brooking no deviations from neoconservatism as it is broadly practiced in Washington. This week, ECI released an ad targeting Donald Trump, a politician who dabbles in another kind of American purity crusade.

What was Trump’s sin? The new ad names the transgression as “kissing up to anti-American dictators.” There’s something to the charge: Trump does seem to love him some dictators! The roster of dictators Trump has praised isn’t particularly short; the advert names Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, and Vladimir Putin (though it seems worth noting that half of those are dead, making “kissing up” sound like necrophilia). Admiration of these strongmen isn’t particularly surprising from someone who himself evinces strains of fascist thought. But ECI’s logic was nonetheless a little jumbled.

The ad ends with print on the screen that reads: “How can Trump make America great when he’s kissing up to anti-American dictators?” But the copy in the e-mail that announced the effort took a different tone, less along the lines of the troubling anti-Americanism of these dictators and more to the point regarding the country with which ECI, by dint of nothing less than its name, is more concerned with. In the text of the ad announcement, Bill Kristol, ECI’s chairperson, says, “If you’re pro-Israel, you shouldn’t be pro-Trump. Apologists for dictators aren’t reliable friends of the Jewish state.”

This is so ahistorical as to be hilarious (as far as reliability is concerned, Kristol’s entry into debates tends to be good for a laugh). In its neighborhood, Israel’s best friends have all been dictatorships (or damned close, like Deep State-dominated Turkey). The broader historical list has some ironic wrinkles—Iran’s Shah had a fruitful but mostly secret alliance with Israel—and of course the only two countries to make peace treaties with Israel are both dictatorships. One, Jordan, is a monarchic dictatorship while the other, Egypt, had a brief flirtation with democracy, which seemed not all to Israel’s liking, before returning to a bona fide strongman dominance. As Kristol’s more democratically inclined partner-in-neocon-crime, Bob Kagan, observed nearly two years ago:

To Israel, which has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except Israel, the presence of a brutal military dictatorship bent on the extermination of Islamism is not only tolerable but desirable.

Trump, true to form, loves Egypt’s dictatorial streak. At the time of a constitutional referendum to enact deeply flawed reforms—critics thought the reforms too friendly to the politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood—though it allowed Egypt’s military to retain much of its stature), Trump tweeted: “We should have backed Mubarak instead of dropping him like a dog.” Some seven months later, the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted in a bloody coup. As Jim Lobe noted in a series of posts over the next few months, neoconservative opinion on Egypt’s return to out-and-out military dictatorship was split, although most predictably joined Kristol in coming down on the side of dictatorship.

The Egyptian president, Gen. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is a fine friend to Israel, and on Kristol’s terms. Sisi is close to one of the neocon don’s favorite political figures, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The dictator would eventually publicly bear out Kristol’s cautious support, declaring last year that more Arab countries should come out and partner with Israel. So it’s entirely natural that Kristol, his recent comments through ECI notwithstanding, has been something of an apologist for Sisi. I suspect Kristol still thinks of himself as a “reliable friend to the Jewish state,” but I can’t be sure.

What’s more, there’s Israel’s current situation: the Jewish state has found itself in an awkward de facto alliance—a friendship, even—with one of the world’s most retrograde dictatorships, Saudi Arabia. The latent Israeli-Saudi friendship is born of a mutual hatred for Iran, something Kristol, surely, can get behind. I covered this strange bedfellows dynamic last week with a post about the cynical alliance between American “democracy defenders” and the kingdom. It’s also worth noting that another Bill Kristol project, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), has lavished praise on Saudi Arabia for its efforts to cut off terror financing (though there’s good reason to question how dedicated the kingdom remains to these efforts, especially when you consider their de facto alliance with al-Qaeda in Yemen, as documented most recently by BBC Arabic (hat tip to Nir Rosen). What one would not find in FPI’s long brief of the subject was so much as an aside about how Saudi Arabia remains and looks poised to remain very much a dictatorship.

Kristol’s charge, then, was a strange one: for decades running, implicit apologias for Arab dictatorships have been a cornerstone of Israeli geopolitics. Not only do apologists for dictators make some of Israel’s most reliable friends, the dictatorships they support have been Israel’s closest geopolitical allies in its troubled neighborhood.

It’s nice that the right is waking up to the danger of Trump’s ascendancy. But the manner in which Kristol, at least, is going after the real estate developer is comically inept. Attacking Trump’s support for dictators is legendarily hypocritical. If there’s any small praise to be given on this account, at least these transparently laughable attacks weren’t jokes about Trump’s ”small hands,” on which Bill Kristol also hilariously commented.

Photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.