Election 2020

What Israeli Politicians Really Think About the U.S. Election

Settler leaders are openly praying for Trump, but Netanyahu is more cagey.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

A Palestinian demonstrator throws an old shoe at a poster of U.S. President Donald Trump near a Jewish settler enclave in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron on Feb. 24, 2017.
A Palestinian demonstrator throws an old shoe at a poster of U.S. President Donald Trump near a Jewish settler enclave in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron on Feb. 24, 2017. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

Foreign leaders traditionally avoid taking sides in U.S. elections. It’s a matter of diplomatic decorum, but it’s also a practical choice: Betting on the wrong horse could mean alienating the next president of the world’s only superpower.

In Israel, some politicians are hewing to the tradition—others, not so much.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a political veteran, managed to gracefully dodge the issue on a call with President Donald Trump last week heralding the U.S.-brokered normalization deal between Israel and Sudan. Trump wanted to know one thing: “Do you think Sleepy Joe [Biden] could have made this deal, Bibi?”

“Well, Mr. President,” an embarrassed Netanyahu responded, “one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”

Still, it’s not hard to discern which candidate Netanyahu and his backers prefer.

Jewish settler leaders, who make up a key part of Netanyahu’s support base, held a reelection prayer service for Trump on Monday at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a contested Jewish and Muslim holy site in the divided West Bank city of Hebron.

“We’ve gathered here to bless President Trump and first of all to thank the Lord for President Trump and for a presidency that made such important changes,” the host of the event said.

Eli Cohen, a minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, took a more subtle approach on the airwaves Monday, arguing that Israel’s recent peace push with several Arab states may stall if a new U.S. administration adopts a “concessionary policy” and does not “show resolve” vis-à-vis Iran.

Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran two years ago, egged on by Netanyahu. Biden has pledged to renegotiate the deal.

The opposition leader Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, struck a more traditional note. He said on Monday that, no matter who won, “the next president of the United States will be a friend of Israel.” Lapid criticized Netanyahu for alienating Democrats and turning Israel into a “branch of the Republican Party.”

Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of the Israeli military and now a member of the left-wing Meretz party, gave a scathing assessment of Trump’s leadership—challenging the conventional wisdom in Israel about the U.S. president. “Trump represents all that is evil and corrupt in politics,” he tweeted Tuesday. “Even if he has done a number of worthy things, he is dangerous to the free world, dangerous to Israel, and dangerous to the values of normal people.”

Given how far apart Trump and Biden are on Middle East issues, such strong opinions in Israel over the identity of the U.S. president will only grow after Election Day.

In a recent interview with the Arab American News, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris made clear that the Biden administration would reverse many of Trump’s signature policy moves that harmed the Palestinians.

According to Harris, a Democratic administration would reinstate U.S. financial aid to the Palestinians, reopen the U.S. Consulate to the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem, endeavor to reopen the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, and oppose Israeli settlement construction and outright annexation in the West Bank.

Drawing a clear line in the opposite direction, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told the Jerusalem Post on Sunday that if Trump were reelected, U.S. policy would continue to favor Israel’s right-wing leadership, only more so.

“Maximum pressure” campaigns aiming at financially squeezing both Iran and the Palestinians into submission would proceed unabated. “The only strategy they really have right now is to hope Trump loses,” Friedman said.

Alluding to the prospect of more Arab states normalizing ties with Israel, Friedman added that this would only be possible if Trump remained in office. Such a scenario would force the Palestinians “to understand that they’re on the wrong side of history and can move in a different direction. We’ll have the first chance in probably 12 years to really get around the table on terms we can accept.”

Friedman’s “we” seems to refer to both Israel and the United States. It reflects another one of Trump’s foreign policies that Biden is expected to roll back if he wins: no daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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