February 20, 2019

This is probably Israel’s choice for the 2016 election

It’s been a long long, time since Israel had a year prior to a presidential election in the United States when Israel didn’t have to worry. Of course, Israel does not get to have a “candidate” in a US election, but it does have preferences. And it’s been a long time since Israel’s “candidate” won a first-term election.

In fact, for an American candidate to be Israel’s candidate means that he, or she, will probably lose. Just look at previous elections: Mitt Romney was Israel’s candidate in 2012, and lost. John McCain was Israel’s candidate in 2008, and lost. Al Gore was Israel’s candidate in 2000, and lost. George H. W. Bush was Israel’s candidate in 1992, and lost. 

The only two elections in which Israel’s candidate won in the last 20 years were those in which the candidate – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – were running for a second term. Israel – except in rare cases, such as with Jimmy Carter (1980) and Barack Obama (2012) – tends to support the incumbent president over a new rival. And except in rare cases, it also tends to support a “third term,” or the supposed continuation of an administration over a new rival. Thus it supported the first Bush in 1988 (Reagan’s third term), Gore in 2000 (Clinton’s third), McCain in 2008 (Bush’s third).

Obama is, of course, the rare case. Or is he?

The Israeli government, and the Israeli public, has not agreed much with or appreciated the Obama administration. When this administration is replaced, Israelis – not all, but probably a significant majority – will breath a sigh of relief. They are hoping for an administration whose support for Israel is more convincing, in deed and also in tone. They are hoping for an administration more ready to get involved in a Middle East that is growing messier. They would hope for an administration with different priorities, with different instincts, with a different language. There is a good chance that – as they have many times in the past – they are rooting for a candidate who will lose, and will have to make do, or possibly be pleasantly surprised, with whoever actually wins.

Of course, except for a few people at the top echelons of Israel’s government, most Israelis do not yet have the American elections on their radar screens. They can hardly tell the difference between a Cruz and a Rubio. They should not be expected to remember the names of the Democratic candidates chasing Hillary’s tail. They could probably identify the photos of just two of the contenders: the guy with the hairdo and the big mouth, and the gal with the pantsuit and the familiar name.

And as they recognize these two, they face a dilemma:

Donald Trump doesn’t look or speak like the serious Republican candidate Israel was hoping for. The unknown factor is too great for him to become the desired candidate for an apprehensive Israel.  

Hillary Clinton doesn’t look or speak like the fresh-face candidate Israel was hoping for. The known factor is too great for her to become the desired candidate for an apprehensive Israel. 

* * *

Ted Cruz could easily become Israel’s choice. Marco Rubio could easily become Israel’s choice. I expect one of them will become Israel’s choice, in the event that one of them becomes the choice of the GOP. Either one would become Israel’s choice (with some of Israel’s leftists looking in horror at their country, once again, supporting a staunch Christian conservative), because of two simple things: Both candidates disapprove of Obama’s understandings with Iran, and they lack enthusiasm for a Palestinian state.

Hillary Clinton, the almost certain Democratic candidate, is currently quite popular in Israel – because of name recognition and because of her husband's high approval ratings – and is likely to remain popular with many Israelis. But as the elections get closer it will be hard for her to compete with Cruz or Rubio from the Israelis’ point of view. She signed off on the Iran deal – the high point of Israel’s disappointment with the Obama administration. And she is an Israeli-Palestinian peace processer by experience (Secretary of State), tradition (the Clinton gang) and nature (the Democratic Party).

As some Americans know – but few Israelis – Cruz and Rubio, while both highly supportive of Israel, are locked in a vicious battle for votes, but also in one over foreign policy. Their respective views on Syria, for example, put them at odds on a core question: What is America’s role in the world?

Senator Marco Rubio is committed to the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and to fostering and advancing a democratic regime in his country. Senator Ted Cruz is committed to keep America away from intervening in Syria’s politics, and only use the U.S. military to fight America’s enemies. Rubio is an heir to the Bush and McCain branch of the GOP. Cruz is a heir to the Nixon and Kissinger branch (he, of course, prefers to present himself as an heir to Reagan – like everybody else. Reagan is the Rorschach president from whom all candidates find a way to draw).

When Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968, Israel was somewhat concerned about the loss of its great friend, Lyndon Johnson, and the new isolationist winds blowing through Chicago’s streets during the most notable ever Democratic convention. But when Nixon was running again in 1972, Israel had an even clearer vision. Then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, the now-deceased Yitzhak Rabin, essentially campaigned for Nixon and against George McGovern. In Rabin’s mind, he was campaigning for internationalism and strength and against isolationism and naïve idealism. 

When George W. Bush was running against John Kerry in 2004, Israel, again, had a clear preference. But strangely enough, this time it supported the idealist – Bush – over the supposed realist – John Kerry. That is because this time the idealist was perceived as the one willing to be engaged and strong, and the self-declared realist was perceived by Israelis, rightly or wrongly, as somewhat weak (their view of Kerry would not improve much in recent years).

So the key is strength, much more then a tendency toward idealism (Bush), or realism (Nixon). And this key opens both the Cruz and the Rubio music boxes. If Rubio wants to fix Syria, Israelis might think he is unlikely to succeed, but would still admire him for trying. If Cruz wants to crush ISIS, and, other than that, avoid Syria, Israelis would understand his motivation.

* * *

In a recent Republican contenders’ debate, Cruz made an argument worthy of attention. His foreign policy, he said, is compatible with Israel’s line of thinking more than his rivals’ – Rubio’s for sure – line of thinking.

“I’ll tell you whose view on Assad is the same as mine,” Cruz said. “It's Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel doesn't have a dog in that fight, because Assad is a puppet of Iran, a Shia radical Islamic terrorist, but, at the same time, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't want to see Syria governed by ISIS.”

Cruz has a point: Israelis think about Syria more like a Cruz than like a Rubio. They tend to be a coldhearted realists, rather than idealists hoping to reform and heal a bruised Middle East (that’s why Rabin got along so well with the Nixon team). If Rubio thought that the end of Mubarak’s Egypt was a good idea, Israelis would assume he is naïve. If Cruz thinks that, as he said, “We need to focus on killing the bad guys, not getting stuck in Middle Eastern civil wars that don’t keep America safe,” Israelis would more easily identify with him.

Yet Cruz also misses a point: that is, if by linking his line of thinking to Israel’s realism, he aims to win the Israel primary. Indeed, Israelis are cold-hearted realists – yet they are apprehensive of the cold-hearted American realist. They are apprehensive of cold-hearted American realists, unless they have no doubt that the cold-hearted realist is also a warm-hearted idealist on Israel.

That is to say: In the approach to a year before a change of administration, three weeks before the Iowa caucuses and with all the necessary caveats (I don’t know how future events and statements will shape the race, or Israel’s view of it) it is Cruz who seems likely to speak to Israelis minds, with his contempt for the dreamy “neocon” agenda. But it is Rubio who’s more likely to win Israelis’ hearts.