7/27/2016 The Conventions - A view from Israel

Today, Israeli news sites posted pictures of the Israeli flag being burned outside the Democratic Convention Hall in Philadelphia last night by protestors; last week, the major news reports highlighted the decision of avowed antisemite, David Duke to run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican, along with Duke’s endorsement of Donald Trump for President.

Israelis are watching the 2016 U.S. Presidential election closely. Interest in the U.S. election here is high, with news broadcasts devoting a dedicated section to the presidential election each night. Israelis are clearly confused by the many twists and turns of the current U.S. presidential race. In the past several elections there had been a sense most Israelis rooted for the Republican candidate, in contrast to leanings of the majority of American Jews. The fact the Republican party has been seen as a more zealous supporter of Israel in the past few years as not hurt. Over the past twenty years, the core of Republican supporters, both its intellectuals, as well as its evangelical supporters have been among Israel’s strongest defenders. On the surface, this year is no different.

The 2016 Republican platform is, by far, the most pro-Israel platform in history; so pro-Israel that its policy dictates are to the right of the positions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One would think that such an Israel-centric platform would garner a great deal of support from the Israeli public – especially since Israel’s most popular paper, Yisrael Hayom, (a free daily controlled by Sheldon Adelson, a strong Trump supporter) has been giving very favorable coverage to Trump.

However, that has not been the case. Israelis seem wary of Trump; concerned about his tone and fearful of his seeming lack of knowledge. While Israel enjoys a close relationship with Putin’s Russia at the moment, with the exception of Israel’s large Russian immigrant population, Israelis are skeptical about Russia’s good intentions in the Middle East. Furthermore, though most people here accept the view that Trump himself is not anti-semitic, the number of anti-semitic supporters that Trump has accumulated is troubling to Israelis – even from 6,000 miles away. For those who truly follow U.S. politics, the fact that most Jewish intellectuals in the Republican party oppose Trump (such as, David Frum and John Podhoretz), is also clearly a red flag for those who might have been inclined to support Trump.

In contrast to some Democratic candidates, the Clintons have always been well-liked in Israel. Bill Clinton is probably Israelis’ favorite former U.S. President. “Shalom Chaver” (Goodbye, friend), Clinton’s heart-breaking final farewell to slain Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, the moving expression of grief expressed by Clinton at Rabin’s funeral, remains seared on the memory of every Israeli old enough to remember that day. When the 20 year anniversary memorial of Rabin’s assassination took place earlier this year, tens of thousand return to Rabin Square the site of Rabin’s assassination, it was in large part, to hear the words of comfort and wisdom shared by President Clinton. Candidate Hillary Clinton gained additional favor in the eyes of Israelis, when during the course of her campaign to become the Democratic Presidential nominee she stated that the only reason there is no Palestinian State today is because former President of the Palestinian Authority, Yasir Arafat refused to accept, or come back with a counter-proposal to the settlement offer presented to Arafat at Camp David by her husband.

This is not to suggest that most Israelis are big supporters of American diplomacy over the course of the past few years. Israelis believe American policy in Syria has been a disaster; few understand what President Obama was thinking when he allowed Syrian President Assad to get away with using chemical weapons on his own population, a clear red line articulated by the President. Many continue to wonder why Obama refuses to use the words “Islamic terrorism”. By and large, the sense in Israel is that the newly nominated Democratic candidate for President would continue the foreign policies set by Obama, albeit having far less qualms about using force than her predecessor.

It should be noted that Netanyahu, who had until recently been holding out on signing a new military aid package with the United States, (hoping to gain better terms from the next President), made the decision in the last few days to accept almost all current U.S. conditions – including ending the option Israel has had to use some of the U.S. aid to purchase Israeli-made arms, in favor of signing the agreement quickly. While expediting efforts to wrap up a new aid package is not necessarily indicative of which candidate would be better for Israeli in the Prime Minister’s opinion, it does suggest Netanyahu has concluded he would not reap a better deal from either of the current presidential candidates. Moreover, with Trump perpetually preaching about “how broke the US is”, conditions may not be ripe for continued US aid in the future. As such, it is better to sign a firm agreement now, than to wait and see any unknown future developments.

Over the next three months, Israelis who have a hard time understanding the intricacies of electoral college (as if most Americans do understand), will be closely watching every ebb and flow of the unfolding U.S. Presidential election campaign. Without question, Americans will be most profoundly affected by the outcome of the election however, Israelis, along with all citizens of the globe, feel they have a lot at stake in the election results.