Israelis like American sports and American television series. But they follow U.S. presidential elections with even greater interest. In fact, Israel (alongside the Philippines) is the most pro-American country in the world, with 83 percent of the population expressing warm feelings toward the United States (according to the summer 2020 Pew global survey).
Most Israelis like U.S. President Donald Trump and hope he wins re-election. In a recent poll, 54 percent of Israelis favored Trump, compared to 21 percent who favor the Democratic candidate Joe Biden. (Another 25 percent said they did not know.) Among Israeli right-wingers, 77 percent prefer Trump, compared to just seven percent who back Biden. Left-wingers back Biden 45-22 percent.
By contrast, just before the November 2016 elections, Israelis favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump (41 percent to 31 percent). Hillary benefited from her association with her husband, President Bill Clinton, who was perceived as a great friend of Israel. (In Israeli conservative circles, support was higher for Trump.)
After four years, Trump’s popularity in Israel has peaked. For most Israelis, no other American administration can claim to be more supportive of Israel than Trump’s. There are a number of reasons for this.
Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, something many previous presidents promised to do, but reneged on once landing in office. This is a foreign policy action of real meaning for Israelis, who are adamant in their attachment to the 3,000-year-old capital of the Jewish people. Israelis cannot understand why countries of the world refuse to accept Israel’s choice of Jerusalem as its capital and place their embassies in western Jerusalem, which is not disputed land. Trump also recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Moreover, on issues that are very important to Israel—Iran and the Palestinians—there has been a much greater convergence of views than ever before between Jerusalem and Washington.
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu fought tooth and nail against the nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by the Obama administration. During the 2016 campaign, Trump slammed the agreement as “one of the dumbest deals ever,” being very apprehensive of Iranian intentions. His administration implemented a policy of “maximum economic pressure” on Iran and withdrew from the Iran deal in May 2018.
In contrast to Obama’s obsession with “illegal” Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, the Trump administration recognized their legality. In fact, Trump and his team have been much more relaxed regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, understanding correctly that it is hardly the most important problem in the chaotic Middle East. The Mideast peace plan announced by the Trump administration in January 2020, the so-called “deal of the century,” was from Israel’s perspective the best peace plan ever tabled by a Western government.
Trump’s positions on other issues, some of which have drawn tremendous criticism, are less problematic for Israelis. For example, the idea of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to stop illegal immigration is viewed in Israel as the sovereign right of a nation to prevent undesirable elements entering its territory. Israel has built walls and fences to stop the infiltration of terrorists and illegal immigrants. Sophisticated fences are exported by Israel’s military industries. Israel has developed technology to enhance the effectiveness of such barriers.
Trump’s diatribes against Muslims are unseemly, but Israelis can understand where he is coming from since they have been subject to Islamic terrorism and Arab state aggression for 100 years. On the other hand, the political correctness of the Obama years, when Obama refused to even acknowledge radical Islam as the source for most of global terrorism, infuriated Israelis.
Obama also estranged Israelis by not distinguishing between Israeli building in Jerusalem and the 'West Bank.' He often dished out “tough love,” as he called it, to Israel. Indeed, after eight years of tense relations with the Obama administration, most Israelis have been relieved to find a friend in the White House.
Israelis are also known for their tendency to be very direct. Thus, Trump’s courage to call a spade a spade is appreciated in Israel, even if some of his statements border on vulgarity. It is refreshing to the Israeli ear to hear an American presidential candidate not beating around the bush, but rather addressing issues without the constraints of liberal political correctness. This quality, too, has earned Trump some popularity in Israel.
We should also remember that since the late 1960s, Israelis generally have preferred Republican presidents. Yitzhak Rabin, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington (1968-73), openly supported the Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon. Similarly, Israeli preferences for Mitt Romney over Obama were abundantly clear. Compared to Europeans and many current American Democrats, Israelis are nationalist and conservative. The conservative Israeli Likud Party has won almost every election since 1977.
Israelis followed the decline of American international fortunes during the Obama years with alarm. It frightened them to see America so weakened. Thus, a president who wants to “make his country great again” by increasing defense spending and standing tall against America’s enemies abroad (especially Iran and China) strikes a responsive chord with Israelis.
Finally, it is worth noting that Trump’s family enchants Israelis. His daughter converted to Judaism and belongs to an Orthodox community. Trump has Jewish grandchildren that he is proud of. His Jewish son-in-law is an important adviser. Living in New York may have sensitized him to the sensibilities of the Jewish community in terms of supporting Israel, and indeed he has made being pro-Israel a hallmark of his presidency.
In short, most Israelis hope the pollsters in America prove wrong once more.
Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Institute.