Israelis assess presidential race with naivete

Israelis assess presidential race with naivete

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

JERUSALEM — All national leaders and populations look at their foreign and national security considerations from the perspective of their own national interest. Regardless of rhetoric espousing global concerns and humanitarian considerations, at the end of the day most scholars recognize that despite good intentions and wishful thinking, international policy is based on self-interest. This is true no more so than in Israel. 

This becomes evident in reviewing a sample of Israeli voices concerning preferences in the U.S. elections.

As their only absolutely clear friend in the world was moving toward officially setting the November 2016 race for president, Israelis were intensely watching last week’s three-ring circus that was the Republican National Convention and anticipating the Democrats’ version. Most felt that this decision was as critical from a security perspective for Israel’s own future as it was for America’s. It was fascinating to observe how the Israelis are evaluating the run-up to the final race and what they consider important in the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton face-off. While sincere and detailed, their responses often seem irrational and lacking in any sophisticated understanding of how the American government actually functions.

Some Israelis view Clinton as anathema because they cannot forget the infamous Hillary-Suha Arafat kiss of more than 15 years ago when Clinton was First Lady. She stepped back from that act at the time and was a strong supporter of Israel in the Senate and at the State Department. While she had her differences with Benjamin Netanyahu, they were not as serious as those of President Obama. She, and especially Bill Clinton, evidenced deep affection for Israel, and while it is likely that a Hillary Clinton administration would have issues with Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process, etc., and would not give the Israelis carte blanche, it is naive to assume that her administration would walk back from a policy of four-square support for Israel. 

Israelis who view the Republican Party platform — which did not include recommendation of a two-state solution — as an actual, reasonable policy choice for a future administration are fooling themselves. It is and was strictly a political bone that the GOP platform committee threw to what they perceive to be the only segments of the Jewish community whose support they appear to have some hope of receiving: the hard Right and the religious, Orthodox Jews. 

On the other hand, there is a view in Israel that Trump, with all his bluster and perceived toughness, will be a strong friend of Israel. His hardline, take-no-prisoners views lead many Israelis to believe that Trump will have their back, regardless. The problem with this view is that, as is the case with so many of his pronouncements, no one really knows what he believes or might do. There is an awareness regarding those he might surround himself with to help him set policy — assuming he allows anyone to advise him about anything. 

Two other important observations about Trump: During the campaign, he did describe a position suggesting he would be neutral on negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and might demand that Israel pay for more American assistance. He clearly has waffled on the need for a two-state solution, something most security experts believe is the only hope for resolving the conflict. More recently, Trump has retreated on some of those positions.

In addition, Israelis do not and did not truly digest the full implications of Trump’s notion of “America First,” or — as he reiterated in his New York Times interview — that he views treaties and agreements with foreign governments and international accords as too one-sided. It appears he could be ready to reconsider any responsibility that the United States might have to uphold any agreements should such circumstances present themselves. For most Israelis, that alone ought to be a major concern when considering which candidate is the better choice. 

Curiously, another stance among Israelis preferring Trump is presented by some on the Left. They argue that American governments have been too soft on Israel and have not pushed Israel hard enough on the peace process. This view suggests that only a strong, blunt, and direct leader will be able to push Netanyahu to make peace with the Palestinians. Trump for them represents the only chance to get out of the current quagmire. 

All of these considerations and more as voiced by many Israelis are interesting, but miss one fundamental point: The strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship does not rest solely in the hands of the president. For the past almost 50 years or longer, this strong relationship has been solidly rooted in strong, bipartisan congressional support for Israel. While there clearly have been political differences — the Iran Agreement being only the most recent and stinging in some Israeli eyes — and personality differences and styles between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers, the relationship between these two allies remains extraordinarily tight. (The apparently forthcoming final agreement of the 10-year U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding on guaranteed military support is only the latest example.) 

Israelis are agitated and fascinated by the goings-on at the conventions and by the American election scene in general. They also have been running more scared than ever, especially during recent years. What they ought to do is look at their longer-term national interests from a deeper perspective.

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