When it comes to Israel, we know the majority of American Jews are not one-issue voters. But the assumption is that Israelis view American elections solely through the prism of their own security. That’s why a new poll from the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University showing that a large majority of Israelis think Hillary Clinton will apply greater pressure on their country to do things they don’t like than Donald Trump would. Yet the same poll also shows that a sizeable plurality would prefer she be elected.
The poll shows that 57.2 percent of Israelis said Clinton would pressure Israel more and were split as to which candidate would be “preferable from Israel’s perspective with 34.5 percent giving the Democrat the nod while 34.3 said it was Trump. Yet they favored Clinton over Trump by a 41.8 to 24.3 percent margin. This seemingly contradictory result isn’t solely the function of Israelis sharing the negative view of Trump’s misogyny, nativism and the influence of the Breitbart.com alt-right within his campaign that colors the attitudes toward the billionaire on the part of liberal American Jews. Though it’s likely that many Israelis are also appalled by his rhetoric, it’s not clear that cultural issues are driving opinion in the Jewish state.
The assumption on the part of Republican Jews is that a Clinton victory would be a third term for President Obama, who has been consistently viewed with distrust, if not hostility, by the majority of Israelis for the last eight years. Clinton was Obama’s first secretary of state and spoke of being the “designated yeller” at Prime Minister Netanyahu in a series of fights with Israel that were ginned up by the administration specifically in order to create more “daylight” between the two allies. While her husband was very popular in Israel, Hillary can’t count on the memory of Bill Clinton’s ability to share the pain of Israelis such as his moving “Shalom chaver” tribute to Yitzhak Rabin. Clinton’s defense of the Iran nuclear deal is another strike against her.
This contradiction can be partly explained by the fact that many, if not most Israelis agree with Clinton’s statement (discovered in the Wikileaks document dump) that even the pretense of a peace process with the Palestinians is better than nothing. The poll shows they’d like their government to keep trying to talk with the Palestinians — as Netanyahu has done with his repeated invitations to Abbas to return to direct negotiations — even if they have very little confidence that anything will come of it.
But the reluctance to embrace Trump has to frustrate those Republicans who point to his statements saying he would not pressure Israel, would recognize Jerusalem as its capital, and see him as a rejection of Obama, whose threats to betray Israel at the United Nations after the election have Jerusalem worried.
The problem for Trump is that his unpredictable nature has convinced many in Israel that he can’t be trusted to maintain the alliance. This goes beyond various statements in which at times he has said he would be “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians. The contradictions in Trump’s foreign policy statements and clearly don’t count on him keeping faith with them in a way he won’t with other U.S. allies.
On Iran, which is Clinton’s weak point on Israel, Trump also has problems. Though he is in accord with most Israelis on the Iran deal, they have noticed that he is also willing to approve of Tehran’s involvement in Syria. There’s no way Trump can crack down on Iran on the nuclear question while viewing it as an ally against ISIS and no guarantee that he won’t wind up thinking he can do business with the Islamist government.
More to the point, Trump’s isolationist tendencies would seem to work against the idea that he would be helpful to Israel. Obama’s determination to abandon the Middle East to Russia and Iran already has some Arab nations scared enough to tentatively embrace Israel. If Trump acts on his isolationist views it might produce problems as great as those created by Obama’s lead from behind strategy.
But the bottom line is that many Israelis may prefer the devil they know in the person of Clinton to a leap into the unknown with Trump. They understand where Clinton stands and what they can expect, both good and bad, with her. But Trump’s unpredictability reads like a recipe for instability to Israelis. The leaks that assert that Netanyahu views Clinton as “more instinctively sympathetic to Israel” than Obama may be not so much as an effort to ingratiate the prime minister with the likely winner as a sincere evaluation of the possibility that Clinton may not prove nearly as hostile as the incumbent.
Other than those Americans who maintain dual citizenship, Israelis can’t vote for president of the United States. But it appears that at least with respect to attitudes toward Trump, most American and Israeli Jews may be in accord.