4/12/2016 American Elections and Israel

The lead item in the news in Israel today has been a notification that police received the go- ahead to conduct a criminal probe into actions of opposition leader, MK Yitzhak Herzog, pertaining to his fundraising practices in a previous election campaign. This revelation follows last week’s announcement that Shas Party leader, MK Aryeh Deri is being investigated for suspected corruption.

In the meantime, during a routine visit to the Golan Heights, Prime Minister Netanyahu changed the long standing Israeli policy of not commenting on any attacks in Syria on Hezbollah weapons shipments; confirming the fact Israel did indeed strike inside Syria dozens of times during the past few years.

Finally, news Egypt is turning two strategic islands in the middle of the Tiran Straits (which provide Israel with an outlet to the Indian Ocean) over to the Saudi Arabians underscores the very fluid nature of politics in the region. All this is taking place against the background of a dramatic drop in Palestinian knife and vehicular attacks on Israelis.

Despite all of these local news stories, updates from the American Presidential campaign trail continue to be a leading item in broadcasts here. It is impossible to have any conversation in Tel Aviv about politics and current events these days without a question regarding the U.S. Presidential campaign coming up. Newscasts often lead with the latest primary results. Over the course of the last few days attention has been focused on presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders and first his mistaken remarks last week – i.e. that over 10,000 Palestinians had been killed in Israel’s 2014 Gaza Israel War. After which, Sanders attempted to self-correct, saying though he was mistaken about the number, he sticks by his earlier remark that Israel used disproportional force in their response to the missile fire.

Sanders did reiterate his support for a secure Israel and stated that Israel had the right of self-defense. However, to most Israelis, including many left-leaning Tel Aviv residents, those words combined with his statement that the United States must be “more balanced in its approach to the conflict” were not will received. After Sanders’ initial remarks, Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and current MK from the Kulanu party, called on Sanders to apologize for what Oren called a “blood libel”. When Jack Tapper of CNN asked the Senator about the accusation Sanders seemed unaware who former Ambassador Oren was.

While the Senator’s misstatement regarding the number of fatalities in Gaza was problematic (the United Nations recorded 2,205 Palestinian, including 1,483 civilians killed), it was his contention the Israeli response was disproportionate that was disconcerting to average Israelis. When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2009, the withdrawal was widely supported by most Israelis. Many believed that once Israel withdrew from Gaza, there would be no excuse to attack Israel – and in the event they did, Israel would have the right to respond with overwhelming force.

The reality did not work out that way. When Hamas seized power in Gaza they renounced the agreements Israel had reached with the Palestinian Authority to end violence. In subsequent years, every time Israel responded to missile attacks from Gaza with limited military force, it was widely criticized for causing more casualties than Hamas inflicted on Israelis (a scale most Israelis reject.) In fact, it has been the continued attacks by both Hezbollah in the north, and Hamas in the south – after Israeli withdrawals – that have caused most Israelis to become skeptical of the notion that withdrawing from territory, achieves peace.

Most Israelis no doubt wish that Tapper would have followed up Sanders’ assertion that Israel had used disproportional force when its major cities were under constant missile attack with a question to the Senator – “What would you have done, Senator, if your cities were being subjected to daily barrages of missile attacks?

Israelis are deeply uneasy about this year’s Presidential elections – not because of one candidate or another – but rather, from the fear that most of today’s front-runners are more isolationist than any of the mainstream U.S. leadership over the course of the last 80 years. To Israelis, regardless of heir political leanings, a strong America is essential in this very turbulent world. While they do not vote in American elections, Israelis (like people in many parts of the globe) have a great deal at stake, as the nomination process reaches its conclusion and Americans go to the polls in November.