analysis

Trump again calls for Israel to end the war in Gaza and ‘stop killing people.’ So what is his policy?

Trump’s recent comments on Gaza have been interpreted as a sign that his previous unyielding support for Israel is not guaranteed in a second term, Richard Hall writes

Friday 05 April 2024 18:22 BST
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Former President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at 40 Wall Street after a pre-trial hearing on March 25, 2024 in New York City.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at 40 Wall Street after a pre-trial hearing on March 25, 2024 in New York City. (Getty Images)

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Donald Trump has been uncharacteristically quiet on what is likely to be one of the biggest foreign policy issues of his second term, should he win in November. But in the few interviews and statements he has given on Israel and the war in Gaza, the former president has shown signs that he may be cooling in his support for the longtime US ally.

In two recent interviews, the former president spoke about how he had been disturbed by images and videos showing civilians bearing the brunt of the onslaught and called for an end to the war.

“You’ve got to get it over with, and you have to get back to normalcy,” he said in an interview with The Hugh Hewitt Show that aired Thursday, adding that he wanted Israel to “get back to peace and stop killing people.”

“And the other thing is I hate, they put out tapes all the time. Every night, they’re releasing tapes of a building falling down. They shouldn’t be releasing tapes like that. They’re doing, that’s why they’re losing the PR war,” he added.

His comments come a week after he made similar statements to Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.

“I think Israel made a very big mistake,” he told the newspaper “I wanted to call and say don’t do it. These photos and shots. I mean, moving shots of bombs being dropped into buildings in Gaza. And I said, Oh, that’s a terrible portrait. It’s a very bad picture for the world. The world is seeing this … every night, I would watch buildings pour down on people.”

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Monday, March 25, 2024.
Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Monday, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Attempting to read between the lines on Mr Trump’s often-wandering remarks on any topic is an imperfect science, at best. The Trump campaign has denied the interview represents a change in policy, while Richard Grenell, an intelligence official in the Trump administration whom the former president has described as called an “envoy,” described Mr Trump’s comments as “pretty clear” in response to a query from The Independent.

In the days after the brutal attack, which killed 1,200 people and saw more than 200 taken hostage, Mr Trump offered his enthusiastic backing for Israel’s retaliatory offensive in Gaza.

But his recent comments, coming after more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed, have been interpreted as a sign that Mr Trump’s previous unyielding support for Israel is not guaranteed.

One of the journalists who conducted the interview, a right-wing Israeli settler named Ariel Kahana, said Mr Trump’s comments “shocked us to the core.”

“Both US presidential candidates, Biden and Trump, are turning their rhetorical backs on Israel,” he wrote. “Trump effectively bypassed Biden from the left, when he expressed willingness to stop this war and get back to being the great country you once were. There’s no way to beautify, minimize or cover up that problematic message,” he continued.

If the images of large civilian casualties coming from Gaza are shaping Mr Trump’s foreign policy plans, it wouldn’t be the first time.

In 2017, during his first term, Mr Trump took the extraordinary decision to launch airstrikes against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in response to deadly chemical weapons attacks that killed more than 100 people, including many children.

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, with photos of victims killed in chemical weapons attacks as she speaks during an emergency session at the UN about Syria in 2017
Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, with photos of victims killed in chemical weapons attacks as she speaks during an emergency session at the UN about Syria in 2017 (Getty)

It was an act that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had resisted throughout his presidency, fearing that a direct strike on Assad could drag the US more directly into the civil war there. It was also somewhat unexpected, coming from a candidate who had pitched himself as non-interventionist and “America first.”

Following the strikes, numerous Trump administration officials recounted that the then-president had been moved to act after seeing what he described as “horrible” images of children suffering from the after-effects of the nerve agent used by Syrian forces.

Mr Trump himself frequently referenced the young victims of the chemical attacks in justifying his response.

“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was — that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line,” he told a news conference at the White House.

Donald Trump speaks as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley looks on after getting a briefing from senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on October 7, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Donald Trump speaks as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley looks on after getting a briefing from senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on October 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Getty Images)

Mr Trump is no dove, and his claims of being a non-interventionist president were belied by his escalation of bombing across the Middle East. As president, he claimed to have implemented a loosening of the rules of engagement in the US-led air campaign against Isis, a campaign that caused thousands of civilian casualties.

As president, Mr Trump was renowned for his prolific cable television viewing, often watching hours a day and forming policy around what he saw. Shocking images from Syria’s war motivated him to take drastic action, in a departure from his previously held views. It is not beyond the realm of possibility, then, that his exposure to masses of videos of death and destruction in Gaza might push him into a more arms-length policy when it comes to Israel.

The former president has other, still personal reasons for not embracing Israel’s war. While he is fond of declaring that he “fought for Israel like no president ever before” — pointing to the controversial decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and his administration brokering the Abraham Accords — he has privately expressed anger at the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for perceived disloyalty after he congratulated Joe Biden for his 2020 election win.

“He was very early — like, earlier than most. I haven’t spoken to him since. F**k him,” Mr Trump told journalist Barak Ravid.

His early comments on the Hamas attack included barbed criticism of Mr Netanyahu for failing to anticipate such an operation.

“He was not prepared. He was not prepared, and Israel was not prepared,” Mr Trump said.

Following criticism from many within his own party, Mr Trump would later correct his tone and offer his support for the prime minister, but it did not go unnoticed.

Trump and Netanyahu together in 2020
Trump and Netanyahu together in 2020 (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Long before his interview with Israel Hayom, Mr Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton offered a warning to supporters of Israel regarding a potential second term.

“Anybody who thinks that he’s going to be pro-Israel as he was in his first term could well be in for a surprise,” Mr Bolton told the New York Times. “Like everything else for Donald Trump, support for Israel he saw as a political plus for him. And if he ever saw it as not a political plus, the support would disappear.”

Much of Mr Trump’s reluctance to talk about the issue is likely a deliberate policy of strategic silence — his opponent, president Biden, is losing support from independents and his own party for his handling of the conflict. The former president can say nothing and benefit from the split among Democrats on the issue.

But if he wins in November, Mr Trump would be unable to run for president again. The political considerations that may have played a part in his backing Israel would all but disappear, and US foreign policy would instead be decided by his id.

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