December 18, 2018

THE TRUMP GAP: One Year in, Why Israelis Like the President So Much More Than American Jews Do

How do you measure a year?

It has been exactly 12 months since Donald Trump was sworn in as the new and surprising president of the United States. But from an Israeli viewpoint, Trump’s first year actually began on Dec. 24, 2016. That was the day after the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 by a vote of 14-0, with one country — the U.S. — abstaining, yet refraining from using its veto power.

In the eyes of most Israelis, it was the last, vengeful act of Barack Obama’s administration, a stunning departure from U.S. policy of many years. Obama decided to let the Security Council pass the measure, which demanded an immediate halt to all Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There was no policy-based argument for the action. It was an ego-driven move, a last act of frustration.

Israel’s response was telling. It marked the beginning of the counting of a new year: “Israel looks forward to working with President-elect Trump,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement, “and with all our friends in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to negate the harmful effects of this absurd resolution.”

The resolution was indeed absurd. And Trump — bolstered by his feisty U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley — was quick to note that, going forward, the United States wouldn’t tolerate such resolutions.

Almost a year to the day after the Obama-backed, anti-Israel resolution came a U.S.-vetoed, anti-Trump resolution. In December, the U.N. condemned Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

While much of the world came to view Trump with (often justified) horror, many Israelis grew to like him.

Between these two unfortunate votes was a year filled with nervousness (when Trump was elected), glee (when Obama departed), adjustment (when Trump seemed to get along with Israel’s leaders) and hospitality (when the president visited Israel in May).

Yes, there was also some embarrassment. Can Israelis really get along with such a leader? Is this man going to be our friend? With time and while much of the world came to view Trump with (often justified) horror, many Israelis grew to like him. Foul language aside, U.S. domestic hurdles aside, kooky tweets aside, in his speeches — although not always consistent — Trump identified many sentiments and themes compatible with their own.

In Poland last July, he spoke about working “together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”

Is that a worldview? It is not always clear that Trump has something coherent enough to be called a worldview. But he surely has sentiments. And these sentiments, his desire to guard “bonds of culture, faith and tradition,” make Israelis — not all Israelis, but more than a few — feel comfortable with him.

When Trump entered office last January, 69 percent of Jewish Israelis expected his attitude toward Israel to be friendly. According to Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index poll, “this belief stretched across all political camps” and included Jews and Arabs. A year later, the same pollsters found that “a large majority of the Jewish public (65 percent) think President Trump’s public declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel was in Israel’s best interest.”

Consider this: 77 percent of American Jews disapprove of Trump, according to the annual survey of American Jewish opinion by the American Jewish Committee. An almost mirror image is found among Jews in Israel, where, as the Pew Research Center documented, 64 percent have confidence in Trump’s “ability to lead.” A December Jerusalem Post poll found that 77 percent of Jewish Israelis call the Trump administration “more pro-Israel” than pro-Palestinian.

Of course, Israelis are not a monolithic group. They have many worldviews. Many Israelis dislike Trump and his policies. They believe he is dangerous to the United States and the world. The leader of the leftist Meretz party, Zehava Galon, once described him as the “sex offender, homophobe, Islamophobe in the White House.”

Still, many Israelis aren’t apologetic about their fondness for the president. It is their habit to like an American president if he likes them back. Thus, Israelis voiced high approval of Democrat Bill Clinton, of Republican George W. Bush and now many have positive views of Trump. They might recognize that his reported insult of Haiti and African countries is problematic, they might see that his persona and manner are hardly presidential and that some of his habits are highly disturbing, but as outsiders, Israelis first consider their own interests. If Trump is on Israel’s side, a majority of Israelis will be on his side.

This is certainly reflected in the language of Netanyahu, who has said that “Israel has no greater friend than Donald Trump.” Compare that to the convoluted phraseologies he employed when he was forced to commend Obama for his friendship. “The president of the United States — including President Obama — every one of the U.S. presidents represents and acts on the tremendous innate friendship of the American people and Israel,” was one way he put it. That is to say: The friend is not Obama, but the American people. “They’re all friends of Israel, equally representing the friendship of America,” Netanyahu said of U.S. presidents in a 2011 interview with NBC’s David Gregory.

It is Israelis’ habit to like an American president if he likes them back.

To be sure, Israelis’ fondness for Trump puts them at odds with people in many other countries — and with many Americans. So, there is risk involved: The more Israel is branded as Trump-friendly, the more it becomes an outlier in the eyes of those who instinctively feel that what Trump is for, they must be against.

This was evident when Trump decided to acknowledge the obvious fact that Jerusalem is, and will remain, Israel’s capital. Leaders of U.S. Reform Judaism opted to respond to this decision by condemning its timing. “[The] White House should not undermine [peace] efforts by making unilateral decisions that exacerbate the conflict,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky tagged this negative response “terrible.” He easily identified the sentiment behind it: “Everything that comes out of Trump is bad, from their perspective.”

President Donald Trump signs a proclamation at the White House on Dec. 6 that the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation at the White House on Dec. 6 that the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation at the White House on Dec. 6 that the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. President Donald Trump signs a proclamation at the White House on Dec. 6 that the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Indeed, it is — a reason to worry about the future of Israel-Diaspora Jewish relations. Of course, this is hardly the first time that Israeli and American Jews have been at odds over important political issues. Over the past two decades, that has been the norm. American Jews did not support the Bush administration and the initiation of the Iraq War, while Israelis did. Most American Jews never abandoned the Obama administration, not even when Israel argued that it failed to defend Israel and didn’t act like a friend.

But with Trump, every phenomenon seems to be on steroids. Most American Jews view the president with unparalleled horror, while Israelis are content with him. “Like him or not, Trump’s first year in office has been good for Israel,” concluded former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens.

Good, relatively speaking. Good, as in better than the previous eight years. The Trump administration has not seemed inclined to manipulate Israel into something it doesn’t want. It has not engaged in speaking in public and in private against Israel’s leaders and their policies. It has not attempted to create “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, as Obama famously said he would. It did not pull any surprises on Israel — well, not more than Trump surprised the rest of the world on Twitter. It was clear and unapologetic in showing its affinity for Israel.

So yes, relatively speaking, the Trump administration is an improvement when it comes to the U.S. relations with Israel.

But “good” might be too strong a term. Besides the kind words, the warm relations and the better atmosphere, there are also actions to be considered. And when it comes to actions, the Trump administration has in many ways continued Obama’s hands-off approach. One thing that’s “good for Israel” is a U.S. that takes the role of leader in the Middle East, but it is not clear that Trump is invested in having such role.

He left Syria to the Russians, reasonably arguing that it was too late in the game for him to have real impact. He has not yet formulated a clear path on Iran. His gut sentiment was there, but not the policy to match it.

That is true even after the president recently clarified that the U.S. is ready to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement unless it is changed in the coming months. Such a development could present Israel with a dramatic dilemma if Iran responds to the U.S. pullout by reigniting its nuclear program. That’s why a joint simulation by the Rand Corp. and Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies concluded that renegotiating the Iran deal is not a realistic goal and that the Trump administration has no “clear plan” as to how Iran can be forced to improve it.

It’s no wonder that Israel’s intelligence agencies believe that the probability of war is higher today than it was a year ago. Of course, that is not exactly Trump’s fault, but it is worth noting that his year in office has not contributed much to preventing war. Russian forces have pulled out of Syria while Iranian forces have gone in. Israel has reportedly attacked Syrian targets on a regular basis to send the message that it will not tolerate Iran at its border. Hezbollah is freer to consider other targets than it was during the height of the Syrian war. Hamas is relying on Iranian support. Amid all these developments — and then some — the U.S. seems inactive, even numb.

President Donald Trump at a welcoming ceremony in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2017. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Last week, Trump evidently was reluctant when he opted to extend Iran’s relief from economic sanctions, keeping intact this part of the Obama-era agreement. Trump was a fierce opponent of the deal. He hinted repeatedly that he had no intention of keeping it. Trump ran for office as the anti-Obama. It clearly pains him to have to reaffirm any Obama policy.

When it comes to actions, the Trump administration has in many ways continued Obama’s hands-off approach.

That is true for Iran and also helped lead to the Jerusalem statement — Trump’s most notable departure from traditional U.S. foreign policy and bluntest demonstration of his willingness to change the rules of the Middle East game.

Many analysts wondered about the real motivation behind Trump’s decision suddenly to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and thus put his potential peace initiative at risk. Some questioned to what extent Israel pressured the administration to make the declaration. Some pundits saw the hand of Vice President Mike Pence, while others blamed more sinister forces, such as billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who they said drove Trump to what they viewed as an irrational act.

The truth is simpler: Trump hated the idea of having to sign the waiver delaying the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem. He hated it because he had made a promise to move the embassy, and Trump wants to be able to boast that he keeps his campaign promises. He hated it and hated the fact that his advisers — including the secretary of state and the national security adviser — advised him to sign the waiver, anyway.

The result was a compromise: The president signed the waiver but made a declaration that diminished the symbolic meaning of the waiver and turned the signing into a purely technical act. The waiver delays the actual moving of the embassy but the U.S. policy is clear: It considers Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

True, this is merely a symbolic statement, as many observers were quick to point out. But that misses the point. A capital is a symbol. Jerusalem is a powerful symbol. A symbolic statement was all that was needed. It is of little importance whether the building in which a few officials push papers is in this or that town.

The Palestinians seem to understand this. So they reacted with the fury they always demonstrate when they discover that — contrary to what their Western supporters led them to believe — time is not necessarily on their side. For now, the Palestinians’ ties with the Trump administration are strained — even more so after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas lashed out at Trump and the U.S. in a lengthy speech earlier this week. Still, at some point, the Palestinians will have to factor in this president’s temper. If they insist on rejecting his overtures, if they insist of denying him the wonderful peace process he vowed to advance, the price could be significant.

Not that Trump has much chance for making peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He doesn’t. Not that Israel would want him to focus on the peace front. It doesn’t. What Israel wants from Trump is to keep the relationship intimate and close. That, it has a fair chance of getting. What Israel wants is for Trump to get more involved in halting the advance of Iran in the region. That, it may not get.

What Israel wants from Trump is another good year — good, not just better than previous years. If the first year was the good year of forgetting Obama, maybe the second year can be good in and of itself.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at