If I had a dollar for every time I was presented with this question in recent months, I probably wouldn’t need to write this column. Since the early spring, it was asked by at least one person at every meeting I’ve had with groups or delegations visiting Israel from the United States.
It’s a question that is almost impossible to answer, because the reply depends on what one defines as “good for Israel” in the first place. Is it good for Israel to have a U.S. President who promises to shred the nuclear deal with Iran into pieces, or a president who promises to closely monitor Iran’s commitments as part of it? Is it better for Israel to have a president who accepts without challenge Russia and Iran’s victories in Syria, or a president who will try to push back against their forces? And will Israel profit more from an administration that will try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once again, or from one which will ignore this issue all together?
As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, a citizen of a country where almost one-fifth of the population is Muslim, and generally a person with a liberal set of values, I’m disgusted by Trump’s racism and horrified by his campaign’s close affiliation with the dangerous and anti-Semitic “alt-right” movement. I also think his acceptance of Moscow’s talking points on Syria and Ukraine almost ensures that he will repeat and then enlarge Barack Obama’s worst foreign policy mistakes. But all that doesn’t completely answer the “better for Israel” question, and so when presented with it I usually don’t refer to my background or forebodings. One could argue that Trump can be a racist Putin-admirer and still have Israel’s best interests at heart.
The main problem with answering “the Israel question” isn’t only the definition of what’s good for the Jewish state, but also the contradictory information out there about the two candidate’s “real” positions on this issue. Is Hillary Clinton a strong and committed supporter of Obama’s Iran policy, as she has professed publicly to be? Or is she a “secret hawk” who doesn’t buy the idea that Iran’s current leadership is moderate—as we’ve learned from the stolen emails of her campaign manager? Will she push hard for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, as her husband did when he was in the White House, or will she settle for a make-believe peace process that yields no results, as some of the same emails seem to suggest?
As for Trump, we must ask ourselves who the “real Donald Trump” is. The one whose Jewish lawyers-turned-advisers claim will give Israel an absolutely free hand in the West Bank, or the one who promised during the Republican primaries to keep a “neutral” stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and who talked about the possibility of “getting a deal” between Israel and the Palestinians with the same dreamy look we last saw in the eyes of John Kerry? It’s also worth mentioning that this past August Trump said: “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘We’re going to rip up the [Iran] deal.’ It’s very tough to do when you say, ‘Rip up a deal.'” Instead of doing that, he promised to “police” Iran’s behavior and look for ways to make the Iranians take the blame for the deal’s collapse—a policy not very far from what Clinton’s skeptics on the Left fear she might eventually do. Trump has since “evolved” on this issue, as Clinton has on others; lately he has promised to tear apart the deal, and to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
All these contradictions have created an interesting and unexpected discussion in Israel. Nehemiah Shtrasler, a senior editor and analyst for Haaretz, declared this past month that he hopes to see Trump elected, because “it is clear that nothing will move on the Palestinian front with Clinton. What was will be. Netanyahu will make empty promises to her while expanding the settlements. The despair will increase, leading to more terror attacks, and Israel’s global standing will decline further.”
Trump offers a chance for a surprise. The moment he reaches the conclusion that stability in the Middle East is in the American interest, he will invite Netanyahu to a one-on-one conversation and tell him, right to his face: You have two months to reach a final arrangement, including withdrawal in the territories, including a solution for Jerusalem. If not, you will be alone in the United Nations, without the umbrella of America’s veto, and we’ll see how you manage with a worldwide embargo. Netanyahu will listen, digest the message—and take action.
I’ve heard a similar explanation from a number of unconventional thinkers on the Israeli Left, and also from one very prominent Palestinian source, who told me last month that “Bibi won’t be able to fool Trump like he fooled Obama. We need another Jim Baker to shake things up here. Trump is the closest thing you will find.”
Public opinion polls, however, seem to suggest that such voices are outliers: Inside Israel, Trump is mostly popular among right-wing and religious Israelis, while Clinton is more popular with left-wing, secular, and Arab Israelis.
A poll conducted in March by Walla News, the website I work for, showed that 38 percent of Israelis would like to see Clinton in the White House, while 23 percent would prefer Trump. Fifty-one percent of the Jewish respondents who voted in the most recent Israeli elections for the center-Left bloc preferred Clinton, while Trump received most of his support from Jewish respondents who voted for the Right. Arab-Israelis overwhelmingly preferred Clinton in the poll.
What was a bit surprising was that, while more Israelis expressed a wish to see Clinton in the White House, Trump very narrowly beat her on the follow-up question of “who will better represent Israel’s interests,” receiving 25 percent to her 24. A similar pattern was evident in a few other polls conduct on this question in Israel in the past few months. When Channel 2 News polled Israelis on the U.S. election in June, 42 percent said they’d prefer Clinton to win, while 35 percent said they’d prefer Trump—yet 57 percent said Clinton would put pressure on Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, and only 13 percent thought Trump would do so.
That confidence in Trump’s unwillingness to pressure Israel may even be growing. In a poll conducted this past week by the Israeli Democracy Institute, 42 percent of respondents said they preferred a Clinton presidency and only 24 percent said they preferred Trump. But once again, more than 55 percent said they believe Clinton would put more pressure on Israel to engage in peace talks, while only 7 percent thought that of Trump. Many Israelis on the center and the Left, it should be noted, don’t necessarily see a certain amount of U.S. pressure—”encouragement” might be a nicer way to describe it—as a bad thing. Bill Clinton put pressure on both sides regarding the peace process, but when things fell apart he didn’t hesitate to lay most of the blame for the failure of the peace talks on Yasser Arafat. Israelis see Obama as more critical of Israel, and as a President who put too much pressure on one side and not enough on the other. Whether that’s true or not is a different discussion, but it may explain the gaps between Clinton’s level of overall support and Trump’s advantage on the “pressure” question.
Another possible explanation is that even Israelis who would prefer less “nagging” from the next U.S. administration have doubts about Trump’s temperament. In the Channel 2 poll from June, a clear majority said Clinton seemed more qualified to be the leader of the free world. Many right-wing Israelis appreciate Trump’s blunt racism and “toughness,” but contrary to what many on the Left are saying, Trump is no Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi is a polished, cautious, hesitant, and calculating politician with decades of experience and an endless list of semi-scandalous baggage behind him. Trump is the exact opposite—inexperienced, hot-headed and at times seemingly unstable. After experiencing too many wars in the last seven decades, Israelis mostly value stability, even if it comes with many shortcomings on the side.
Netanyahu, in that sense, is actually more similar to Hillary Clinton, “the establishment candidate.” In Israel’s most recent election, many people who voted for him did it not out of any love or enthusiasm for the man himself, but mainly because he was the only thing standing between Israel and a left-wing government, which they believed would make dangerous concessions in the peace process. His main rival, Isaac Herzog, seemed to many voters weak and unprepared for the job, which further motivated disgruntled right-wing voters, many of whom originally planned to vote for one of the smaller right-wing parties, to once again vote for Netanyahu (especially since most polls predicted a Herzog win heading into Election Day). That’s why it’s puzzling for me as an Israeli observer to see many U.S. Democrats already declaring victory more than two weeks before November 8. The lesson of Netanyahu’s victory is that a candidate who is disliked by many of his or her own supporters, must convince them that the apocalypse is waiting around the corner—unless they go out and vote. Trump may not be able to manage the same feat, but it’s too early to say.
Deciding which candidate will be “better for Israel” is hard to do. My personal opinion is that, at the end of the day, Israel’s greatest interest lies in the continuing strength and success of the United States of America. It’s impossible to tell how each candidate will address specific questions related to Israel, but it is possible to say that when the United States is respected around the world, and takes a leadership role, that’s usually good for Israel, in one way or another. People who want to vote for the candidate who is “better for Israel,” should first of all ask themselves, then, which candidate will be better for the United States.