Trump seeks to tap Israeli-Arab pacts for election gains

WASHINGTON • When US President Donald Trump presided over a grandiose White House signing ceremony for new accords between Israel and two Arab states last week, his re-election campaign wasted little time cashing in.

Two days after the event, his campaign released a slick, 30-second advertisement featuring footage from the ceremony and depicting Mr Trump as a heroic peacemaker for bringing Israel into normalised relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

"They said it couldn't be done. But President Trump did it," a narrator declares in the dramatic tones heard in Hollywood blockbuster previews. "The first Middle East peace agreement in decades."

In an election dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, racial unrest and now a Supreme Court vacancy, the President's Middle East deal has already faded into the endless news cycle.

But the ad is the latest sign that however much Mr Trump might value his diplomacy for its potential to reshape the region, his campaign also sees a potent message that may not be top of mind for most voters but could move a handful of the right ones in the right places.

Mr Trump's allies say the deal resonates particularly with Jewish Americans, who are a key voting bloc in the critical swing state of Florida, and evangelical Christians, who are fervent supporters of Israel and its broadest territorial claims.

"This is an important event, not just because of the substance but because of the symbolism as well," said Mr Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

"I think that shows to people who may not be necessarily tuned in to foreign policy that he's got the leadership and judgment to act on a vision and have success."

Democrats call such talk wishful thinking, arguing that voters currently care little about foreign policy. They also note Mr Trump's unpopularity among American Jews, citing a poll released last week by the Jewish Electorate Institute, which found that he trails his Democratic opponent, former vice-president Joe Biden, 67 per cent to 30 per cent among Jewish voters.

"Whatever their long-term meaning, I'm not sure that these deals, coming as late as they are in the middle of a pandemic and the final throes of the race, mean that much," said Mr David Axelrod, a former senior strategist to president Barack Obama, even before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last Friday.

"It's not where people are focused and voters tend to discount late-breaking announcements as part of the campaign."

More significant could be Jewish and evangelical voters. Even if most Americans care little about shifting Middle East alliances, in swing states that could be decided by mere thousands of votes, such as Florida, even a slight shift within those groups could swing a close state towards Mr Trump.

Mr Karl Rove - a former strategist to president George W. Bush - who now informally advises the Trump campaign, noted that in his winning 2018 campaign, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida won by fewer than 40,000 votes after carrying 35 per cent of the Jewish vote.

"Evangelicals do care about character, so there is this tension," Mr Rove said. "So when he gets conservative judges and stands with Israel and forges new friendships in the region, that helps."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2020, with the headline 'Trump seeks to tap Israeli-Arab pacts for election gains'. Print Edition | Subscribe