It may have been primetime American TV, but the first Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump presidential debate came at an awkward time for Israel, getting underway at 4 in the morning. And for those here who stayed or got up, there was nary a reference to us to lift our tired, pre-dawn spirits — no direct mention of Israel, and just a single Trump namecheck of our prime minister.
Issues that deeply concern Israel did feature, however, notably including the Iran nuclear deal and the battle against terrorism.
Here are four morning-after debate takeaways from Jerusalem.
A 90-minute debate and the word “Israel” wasn’t uttered?! With our destiny profoundly intertwined with that of the free world and America as its leader, should we be unhappy about this? I really don’t think so.
Israel has every interest in not being abused as a political football in this spectacularly rancorous presidential campaign. We’re located on the geographical and practical front line of the battle against the death-cult Islamic extremism that widely threatens the free world. We’re the region’s only democracy (though we would be delighted to be joined by others). We want, need and feel that we merit support from across the American political spectrum.
If these two endlessly arguing candidates found nothing compelling about Israel to disagree over, all the better. Nothing to say here. Let’s move on.
By contrast, Iran, and the nuclear deal with the ayatollahs that was pushed, signed and exalted by the Obama administration came up plenty. And I’d speculate that the sympathies of most Israelis watching would be with Trump’s take.
The way Clinton described it, “I spent a year-and-a-half putting together a coalition that included Russia and China to impose the toughest sanctions on Iran. And we did drive them to the negotiating table. And my successor, John Kerry, and President Obama got a deal that put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program without firing a single shot. That’s diplomacy. That’s coalition-building. That’s working with other nations.” Later she added: “There’s no doubt that we have other problems with Iran. But personally, I’d rather deal with the other problems having put that lid on their nuclear program than still to be facing that.”
It’s the upstart candidate who can afford to feel happier
Trump was unimpressed: “… You started the Iran deal,” he reminded his rival, bitterly. “That’s another beauty where you have a country that was ready to fall. I mean, they were doing so badly. They were choking on the sanctions. And now they’re going to be actually probably a major power at some point pretty soon, the way they’re going.” He returned to the theme soon after: “This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history. The deal with Iran will lead to nuclear problems. All they have to do is sit back 10 years, and they don’t have to do much… And they’re going to end up getting nuclear. I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day. Believe me, he’s not a happy camper.”
From these shores, the Iran deal does look to many like a weak agreement when a better one could have been negotiated. The P5+1 set out to dismantle Iran’s rogue nuclear program and imposed the sanctions that forced the regime to the negotiating table, but wound up with an accord that leaves part of the program intact, doesn’t freeze all of its elements, and allows Iran a potential rapid break-out to a nuclear arsenal even if it honors the accord as the various clauses expire over the coming years.
Adding insult to injury, the Obama administration told Israel to stop critiquing the accord before it was signed because our leadership ostensibly didn’t know what it was talking about, then claimed no better deal could have been made and that no deal would have satisfied Israel, and most recently the president himself asserted implausibly that “the Israeli military and security community” now recognizes it as a positive “game-changer.”
Netanyahu “not a happy camper”? I’d imagine the prime minister would privately have nodded, sighing, at that Trump summation.
Pre-gladiation, this first face-off was being hyped by US media as some kind of political near-equivalent to the Thrilla in Manila. Britain’s Sky News called it a debate that could “change the world,” no less. But if 100 million Americans really did tune it for its opening feints and punches, I wonder how many of them were still watching by the final rounds.
There was no knockout. No dazzling rhetorical sucker punch. Back from pneumonia, Clinton didn’t so much as clear her throat, let alone wobble, slump or cough. Trump didn’t flip his lid. And the early exchanges, on tax, loans and drapery, hardly made for the most riveting of television.
Nixon-Kennedy, this was not. Nor, for that matter, to invoke an election-defining Israeli debate, was it Peres-Netanyahu: Twenty years ago, in May 1996, three days before Israel went to the polls to elect a successor to the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, a very reluctant frontrunner named Shimon Peres consented to a single TV debate against the youngish opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres was reluctant because he had everything to lose: He was the political veteran, the establishment candidate who’d paid his dues and then some; he had the experience and the presumed wisdom, and he was facing off against an unpredictable, nimble and telegenic challenger.
The defining moment came at the end of the debate, when the moderator, Dan Margalit, invited each of the candidates to ask the other a single question. Netanyahu, as he had done throughout the TV contest and indeed throughout an election campaign marked by Hamas suicide bombings, attacked Peres for his ostensible incapacity to rectify the “deteriorating” security situation, to which Peres retorted that his rival was making cynical political capital out of people’s fears. But when the time came for Peres to put his question to Netanyahu, he declined to ask anything at all, evidently intending to signal that Netanyahu was a piffling amateur who could contribute nothing of real value. What came across, however, was the sense that Peres could conceive of no question for which Netanyahu would not find an effective answer.
Days later, Peres lost the election to Netanyahu by less than one percent — 29,457 votes, to be precise. The TV debate was certainly a factor.
Clinton demonstrably knew better than Peres did then of the perils of underestimating a ruthless and sharp opponent. She has, as she noted, “prepared to be president.” And she had plainly prepared rigorously for this debate — knowing that TV is home territory for Trump.
Neither candidate will have left the hall feeling defeated. But neither could credibly claim a decisive victory, either.
And yet, even though Trump was in his natural TV habitat but failed to land a definitive blow, even though Clinton seemed competent, confident and relatively assured, I rather think it’s the upstart candidate who can afford to feel happier after this first of three debates.
Here he was, the self-styled outsider, the ostensible anti-establishment candidate, the long-odds challenger who nobody gave a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the nomination, finally standing on equal terms with the veteran insider, swinging and jabbing, ducking and diving. On the split screen, simply because he’s taller, there was Clinton even looking up at him now and again — a dream shot.
Did he appear hopelessly out of his league against this hugely experienced political leader? He did not. Did he give his likely voters a powerful reason to reconsider, to pull away? I don’t think so. And did he damage his prospects among the undecideds? I don’t think so either. His campaign has been littered with superficial policy proposals and some appalling and vicious rhetoric; he steered clear of those on Monday night.
Trump’s appeal stems, in part, from the fact that he’s brash, and contentious, and speaks from the gut. That appeal gets limited if he can also be shown to be irresponsible, intemperate, dangerous.
Did Hillary Clinton persuade Americans on Monday night that Donald Trump must not be trusted with the leadership and defense of their country? I don’t think she did. And she may have to, if she is to stop him from winning the presidency.