In the only relatively credible survey I’ve seen here in the run-up to Tuesday’s US presidential vote, 70% of Israeli Jews and 63% of all Israelis told pollsters from the Israel Democracy Institute that “from the standpoint of Israel’s interests,” Donald Trump is the “preferable” presidential candidate. On the Israeli Jewish right, the figures were a vast 82%-6% for Trump over Joe Biden; in the center 62%-16%; even on the left, Biden could only manage a 40-40 split with Trump.
Those findings stand in stark contrast to several polls ahead of the 2016 elections, in which Israelis favored Hillary Clinton over Trump. Indeed, the IDI’s figures, released late Monday, show a marked rise in appreciation for Trump even since its last such poll in June — when “only” 60% of Israeli Jews considered Trump to be the preferable candidate as far as this country is concerned.
The additional boost, no doubt, is largely a function of the three normalization accords the Trump administration has sealed between Israel and Arab states in the past few weeks — with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, most recently, Sudan.
In the Israeli consensus — not wall-to-wall, but widespread — Trump has been an exceptional president for Israel. He recognized Jerusalem as our capital, moved the US embassy here and, most recently, allowed dual American-Israeli citizens born in Jerusalem to write “Israel” in their US passports as their place of birth.
He endorsed Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights — ending the fiction that Israel should be required to relinquish the strategic high ground to Syria.
Where the Obama administration had pushed an accord with Iran that failed in its originally stated purpose to dismantle the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program — indeed, didn’t even freeze it — Trump’s administration withdrew from the accord, offered to negotiate a new one that would work, and meantime stepped up financial pressure on the ayatollahs.
Where the Obama administration relentlessly pressured Israel over settlement expansion as a central part of a failed strategy to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table, to the point of allowing a UN Security Council resolution castigating Israel over its settlement enterprise to pass, Trump’s White House was more realistic and ultimately more nuanced. It unveiled a peace proposal that provides for a demilitarized Palestinian state in most of the West Bank with land swaps from inside Israel, while allocating 30% of the West Bank to Israel, including all the settlements. After a lot of ambiguity and confusion, it blocked unilateral Israeli annexation of those areas, then brokered a deal with the UAE that took annexation off the table indefinitely, and continues to encourage the obdurate Palestinians to get on the peace train and negotiate.
Whether Trump has been an exceptional president for the United States of America is quite another question. He is shatteringly divisive domestically, emboldening extremists, and mocking, humiliating and inciting against his opponents. He has been dismissive, cavalier and blinkered in the face of a pandemic that has killed over 230,000 Americans. In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, he has castigated the Supreme Court, sought to undermine the credibility of the electoral process, and raised doubts about whether he will accept the electorate’s verdict.
It was striking, in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s announcement of Israel-Sudan normalization 10 days ago, to see the responses of two Democratic organizations: The Democratic Majority for Israel, a group that embraces pro-Israel policies close to the establishment pro-Israel community, and the Jewish Democratic Council of America, which describes itself as the political voice of Jewish Democrats and advocates “socially progressive, pro-Israel, Jewish community values.”
For the former group, the latest peace deal was a cause for congratulation, “another important step towards peace and stability in the region,” and an opportunity to encourage the Palestinians to resume peace talks on a two-state solution. For the latter group, by contrast, the new accord smacked of “self-serving transactional” dealing by the president, in which Israel was being “used as a political tool” to serve Trump’s own interests.
Those contrasting responses showcased the differing perspectives of Trump political opponents focused centrally on Israel’s interests, on the one hand, and “Jewish values” on the other. Thousands of miles away, some Israelis, quite similarly, have spent four years torn between dismay and worse at his handling of the presidency, and common-sensical, self-interested appreciation of his pro-Israel actions. This internal conflict — playing out for what I suspect is a minority, but not insubstantial number of Israelis — is exacerbated by concerns that the Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu partnership has led to Israel, which depends on widespread American support wherever the pendulum swings, increasingly being perceived as a partisan cause in the US.
The Israelis polled by the IDI were asked which presidential candidate was “preferable” from the narrow “standpoint of Israel’s interests.” Tellingly, they weren’t asked the seemingly more straightforward question of whom, if they had the right, they would vote for. For some Israelis, watching America cast its ballots on this tense and fateful election day, that’s not necessarily the same question.
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