For Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-born Israeli author and speaker, the 2016 presidential election wasn’t supposed to be like this. After eight years of President Barack Obama, Halevi, a centrist who has been highly critical of the outgoing president’s Middle East posture and in particular of last year’s nuclear deal with Iran, was prepared to go all in against the Democrats.
But from Halevi’s perspective, this election season saw the emergence of a far more dangerous menace from an unexpected source: the putatively pro-Israel Republican Party’s nominee for president, Donald Trump.
“I was so looking forward to 2016 as an opportunity to punish the Democrats,” says Halevi. “But given the way that this election has turned out, my far greater fear is a Trump victory.”
When it comes to mainstream public opinion in Israel, Halevi is far from alone. A poll released Sunday by the Peace Index, conducted jointly by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), shows that the Israeli public prefers a Hillary Clinton administration over a Donald Trump ticket by an overwhelming tally of 42% to 24%. At a political moment when Republicans are attempting to persuade American Jews that they, and not the Democrats, are to be trusted on Israel, it is the Republican Party’s appointed standard-bearer whom far more Israelis appear not to trust with the US-Israel relationship.
Itamar Rabinovich, who presided over some of the warmest years of the US-Israel relationship as Israel’s ambassador to the United States under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and during the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, is unsurprised that Republican efforts have been unpersuasive to Israelis. For an Israel that, he says, above all values stability, consistency, and reliability from its most important ally and the leader of the most powerful country in the world, Trump is perceived as anything but.
“The general perception is that Trump is totally unpredictable,” says Rabinovich, who now serves as president of the Israel Institute. “In a crucial relationship like the one between the US and Israel, that is perceived very negatively.”
For the Israeli public, says Rabinovich, it appears that “Trump is someone who is not really interested in and knowledgeable” about matters of foreign policy. “[Trump] has changed his mind and contradicted himself a number of times, which doesn’t help.”
When asked if he shares the concerns of the public when it comes to Trump, Rabinovich answers simply, “Yes, I do.”
These concerns appear to transcend political eras. Dan Arbell, former acting head of the North America division at the Foreign Ministry from 2005 to 2009 before serving for three years as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC and ambassador Michael Oren’s second-in-command (during the early years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current premiership), sounds a similar note of alarm.
“There are a lot of unknowns [about Trump] which makes me as an Israeli pretty anxious,” says Arbell, now a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a lecturer at American University in Washington, DC.
Trump’s inconsistency from one day to the next is disconcerting, says Arbell, particularly in the wake of the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding that will see the United States give $38 billion in military assistance to Israel over the next 10 years.
“While Trump declares he is pro-Israel and supports Israeli security,” Arbell says, when it comes to “the different statements he has made on foreign aid, including foreign aid to Israel, it becomes somewhat hard to square the circle.”
Ditto his policies vis-à-vis the peace process. “The policies on the Palestinian-Israeli front are also a big question mark,” Arbell says. “He said he would be ‘neutral’ during the Republican primary. Then he said he would have Israel’s back.
“It’s unclear what his philosophy is and what his policies will be.”
Arbell, who still maintains contacts with several of his former colleagues in the Foreign Ministry, believes that Trump’s unknowns could become a real issue among Israel’s current diplomatic corps charged with guiding the Jewish state’s relationship with the United States. “The official position is that [the ministry] does not interfere” in the election, says Arbell. “But if I have to read in between the lines, I think that people share the opinion that Trump is an unknown.”
For Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Trump’s unknowns “can work in your favor or it can work against you,” says Arbell, but “the unpredictability is very hard on those who are policymakers.”
If Rabinovich and Arbell’s critiques of Trump appear, well, diplomatic, it is worth noting that it is fairly uncommon for former or current Israeli government officials, particularly those who have specifically worked to strengthen the US-Israel relationship, to publicly express their concerns about a major American presidential candidate in the run-up to election day. (It is more common for such officials to critique or praise a sitting president). Netanyahu, who was pilloried both at home and abroad for, according to some critics, appearing to favor Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, has been all but silent on the presidential race this election season. Israelis, whatever their political leanings, generally understand that the bipartisan nature of America’s support for Israel is the linchpin of the US-Israel relationship; thus, Israel’s public figures are disinclined to publicly critique anyone with a realistic chance of winning the presidency.
Other Israeli thought leaders with deep experience in the US-Israel arena express similar concerns about Trump. For Arye Carmon, founder and former president of the aforementioned IDI, Trump’s presidency itself, not merely his perspectives on national security and foreign policy, presents a threat to US-Israel ties.
“From the perspective of an Israeli and from the perspective of the founder and first president of the Israel Democracy Institute, I see the potential presidency of Trump as a major problem for relations between Israel and the United States,” says Carmon. “From the standpoint of Israel, the stability and the vitality of American democracy is a major asset. And Trump poses a major problem for American democracy.”
Carmon also shares others’ concerns about Trump’s unpredictability on Middle East policy. “I am quite concerned about the instability in Trump’s remarks about the Middle East,” says Carmon. “And the last thing that the Middle East in general and Israel in particular needs is a non-stable perspective.”
Carmon, who is also a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, expresses high regard for previous Republican administrations.
“When Reagan was president, his foreign policy was very clear,” says Carmon. “When (George) Bush Sr. was president, it was very clear. When George W. Bush was president, it was pretty clear – and hence, any Israeli government could adjust.
“I cannot see any former Republican candidate who was so unclear. And this is something Israel cannot afford.”
Appreciating Trump’s positions
To be sure, not all experts in Israel are convinced that a Trump presidency would threaten the US-Israel relationship; some think he could strengthen it. “A number of people I know are actually quite impressed by Trump’s positions [on Israel],” says a former senior Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Indeed, the September version of the Peace Index/IDI poll showed that despite an overall preference for Clinton over Trump, 39% of respondents said that Trump would be “better from the standpoint of the Israeli government’s policy,” compared to 33% who believed that Clinton would be. (No such question was asked in the October poll.)
The official noted that there is “a degree of appreciation for positions that Trump has taken” on Israel, such as his pledge to recognize an undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (though the official was quick to note that “there is some doubt, however, as to the degree of coherence we might expect in a Trump administration”).
Additionally, Hillary Clinton’s service as secretary of state for President Obama, who has been a decidedly less popular figure in Israel than either former presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton, may temper her support among some Israelis. Because the administration began negotiations with Iran while Clinton was still at the State Department, and because of her public (albeit reserved) support of the Iran nuclear deal that resulted, Clinton still has yet to win over some of the nuclear agreement’s most vehement opponents.
“Much will depend on whether [Clinton] can distance herself from her statements about Iran,” says the official. “She will have to prove very quickly and early on that her prior statements do not reflect her view.”
Still, the official says, with Clinton, there is at least a precedent on which to base her trustworthiness. “We have her voting records as a senator,” which were generally strongly supportive of Israeli positions and policy. “Essentially we see her as a friend.”
Despite Netanyahu’s vow to publicly keep quiet about the election, he appears to privately hold the view that Clinton’s predisposition is friendlier to Israel than that of the current president. In a recently revealed meeting between former US official Stuart Eizenstat and a “senior Israeli official who is very close to the prime minister, and knows his thinking,” the Israeli official reportedly said that Netanyahu views Clinton as “more instinctively sympathetic to Israel than the [current] White House,” and someone with whom the prime minister has always had a “surprising good relationship.”
Benefits of Bill
Clinton’s lead over Trump in Israeli polls and support for her from a broad array of Israel’s foreign policy experts is probably aided by the enduring popularity of her husband, widely regarded to this day as perhaps the most beloved American politician in Israel. Former president Clinton’s presence at Shimon Peres’s funeral, not to mention his warm eulogy for the Israeli elder statesmen and the various images of him circulating on social media as he warmly consoled the Peres family in Jerusalem, have only reinforced his singular reputation in Israel in recent weeks.
“Often people joke that if Bill Clinton would run for office in Israel, he would no doubt be elected,” says Arbell. “[Hillary] Clinton has been admired and respected in Israel in her different roles as first lady, NY senator and secretary of state. Being Bill Clinton’s wife only adds to the support and admiration Israelis have for her.”
“In the minds of Israelis, Hillary Clinton is more identified with Bill Clinton than with Obama,” says Rabinovich. Rabinovich, who got to know Hillary Clinton personally while serving as Israel’s ambassador when Clinton was first lady (the two still see each other at the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum in Washington, DC), says he found Clinton to be “fundamentally very friendly and committed” to Israel, as well as “committed to a peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians.
Whether Bill Clinton would, under his wife’s direction, once again actively engage in Middle East affairs, as he passionately did during his time in office, remains an open question (and a subject of intense speculation in Washington, as a recent article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic suggests). “I don’t actually see him getting involved,” says Arbell, “but if he does, it would be helpful for advancing his wife’s policies.”
Either with her husband’s aid or without it, for Obama critics like Yossi Klein Halevi, who would have hoped for a Democratic defeat in November had not the alternative been Trump, Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy more closely resembles her husband’s than that of the current White House. “I see four more years of Obama as far more likely under Trump than under Hillary,” says Halevi. “Hillary at least is an interventionist and believes in the necessity of using American power.”
Despite his reservations about Clinton, Halevi, like much of the Israeli mainstream, is all in against Trump – and he’s not holding back. “To have an incompetent blowhard in the White House is a danger to the future of humanity, and the State of Israel is a part of that,” says Halevi.
“Where America goes, we go.”
Mark Donig is a US-based non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya.