Israel is a very pro-American country, maybe the most in the world. As in the past, Israelis followed the U.S. presidential election with extreme interest, amazed that the American political system did not produce more palatable presidential candidates.
In a poll taken following Donald Trump’s victory, 83% of Israelis said they consider Trump a pro-Israel leader; by contrast, another poll showed that 63% view Barack Obama as the “worst” U.S. president with regard to Israel in the last 30 years. Indeed, after eight years of tense relations with the Obama administration, most Israelis are relieved to see a friend in the White House. Moreover, on issues that are important to Israel—Iran and the Palestinians—there seems to be a greater convergence of views than before.
Trump’s stance on Iran is particularly important now, as Iran recently held a military exercise to test its missile and radar systems after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Tehran for a recent ballistic missile test. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Trump in Washington DC next week, it’s worth following what the leaders will say about the Iran nuclear deal and what kind of role the U.S. will play in Israel going forward.
Netanyahu fought tooth and nail against the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration negotiated with Iran. Trump slammed it as “one of the dumbest deals ever.” Senior members of his administration share this view and are apprehensive of Iranian intentions.
Obama gave a high priority to negotiating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was obsessed with Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He estranged Israelis by not distinguishing between Israeli building in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He often dished out “tough love” to Israel—as he called it in addressing a Jewish synagogue in Washington DC. Trump and his advisors, by contrast, seem more relaxed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, understanding correctly that it is hardly the most important problem in the chaotic Middle East. Even the White House criticism of the Israeli announcement of new settlement building plans—calling them not helpful to the peace process, but adding that they are not impediments to peace—is a positive change in Israeli eyes.
Furthermore, Trump’s promise to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem seems more sincere than such promises by previous presidential candidates. Throughout his campaign and short presidency, Trump has shown that he follows through on what he says he is going to do, and is more concerned with fulfilling his promises than flattering the electorate. Israelis cannot understand why other countries refuse to accept their choice of Jerusalem as their capital and place their embassies in western Jerusalem—which is not disputed land. Picking David Friedman—an Orthodox pro-settlement Jewish American who owns an apartment in Jerusalem—as ambassador to Israel lends credence to Trump’s promise.
Trump’s positions on certain issues that draw tremendous criticism at home and abroad are less problematic for Israelis. For example, the idea of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration is viewed in Israel as the sovereign right of a nation to prevent undesirable elements entering its territory. Israel has built walls and fences to stop the infiltration of terrorists and illegal immigrants from Palestinian territories.
Trump’s diatribes against Muslims are unseemly, but Israelis can understand where he is coming from, since they have been subject to Muslim terrorism and Arab state aggression for 100 years. The political correctness of Obama’s years—where he refused to even acknowledge radical Islam as the source of most of the terrorism in the world—infuriated Israelis.
Thus, Trump’s courage to speak his mind is appreciated in Israel, even if some of his statements border on vulgarity. It is refreshing to the Israeli ear to hear an American presidential candidate not beating around the bush, but rather addressing issues without the constraints of liberal political correctness. This quality has earned Trump some popularity in Israel.
We should not forget that since the late 1960s, Israelis have preferred Republican presidents. Yitzhak Rabin, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 1968 to 1973, openly supported the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon. Similarly, Israeli preferences for Mitt Romney over Obama were abundantly clear. In comparison to Europeans and many current American Democrats, Israelis are largely nationalist and conservative. The conservative Israeli Likud party has won more elections than any other party since 1977.
Israelis have followed the decline of American international fortunes during the Obama years with alarm. It frightens them to see America so weakened. Thus, a Trump that wants to make his country great again by increasing defense spending and standing tall against America’s enemies abroad (especially Iran) strikes a responsive chord with Israelis.
Finally, Trump’s family biography endears him to Israelis. His daughter converted to Judaism and belongs to an Orthodox community. Trump has Jewish grandchildren that he is proud of. His Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is an important advisor. Living in New York may have sensitized him to the sensibilities of the Jewish community. Moreover, he always has expressed strong support for the Jewish state.
After eight years of the distant President Obama in the White House—who used his last days in office to lash out at Israel at the United Nations—we should not be surprised that Israelis are, with some trepidation but even more hope, looking forward to working with the new American president. While the euphoria displayed by some right-wing circles in Israel is not warranted, an improvement in bilateral relations is a realistic expectation.
Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.