US election seen from Israel: "A domestic political issue" here
Neri Zilber is a Tel-Aviv based freelance journalist who writes primarily for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, Politico and The Atlantic. He is also affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Gabrielle Debinski: To what extent are Israelis — the people and government — concerned with the outcome of the upcoming US election?
NZ: Well, it's of great concern to people here and especially the political class. Israel is often referred to as a domestic political issue in America. Arguably, America is a domestic political issue in Israel as well.
I don't think I'm speaking out of school when I say that Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the long-serving prime minister here in Israel, has bet a lot on Donald Trump over the past three and a half years. He's made it a calling card and a centerpiece of his multiple reelection bids, going so far as to put up massive banners all over the country with him and Trump shaking hands and the tagline "Netanyahu, a league above all the rest." The closeness of Netanyahu and Trump has really aided Netanyahu domestically here in Israel.
GD: How concerned is Netanyahu with the prospect of a Biden victory then?
NZ: I think Netanyahu is quite concerned if Trump were to lose in November.
The fact that Trump's poll numbers have plummeted in recent months, primarily due to COVID, I think that was perhaps a wrinkle that Netanyahu was hoping to avoid.
I think [Netanyahu] is going to try to leverage — and we've already seen him leverage — the remaining few months of the Trump administration to bolster his own position domestically. And again, the best example is both the substance and the timing of the UAE deal [to normalize ties with Israel], which was brokered by Jared Kushner. I don't think the timing is a coincidence with Israel potentially facing yet another election in the coming months.
GD: A recent Gallup poll showed that Israelis support Trump more than any other nation. Why do you think that is?
NZ: The best explanation that I could find was that Israelis are one-issue voters. When it comes to American presidents, they care very little about things like, say, Supreme Court nominations or abortion rights — or even corruption and common decency in the American presidency. What they really care about is Israel: whether this individual or foreign leader is "good" for Israel or "bad" for Israel. In Donald Trump, you have somebody who has been almost unconditionally supportive, at least diplomatically, of Israel and the Israeli government.
GD: When you say Israelis, are you including progressive voters there too?
NZ: I would say they [progressives] are probably more aware of the damage that American presidents like Donald Trump do to Israel's long-term interests. But most Israelis are appreciative of the fact that not a lot is asked of Israel, primarily in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not only. You have an American president who unconditionally moves the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and unconditionally recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — and is positively inclined towards recognizing Israeli sovereignty over massive parts of the West Bank.
Most Israelis, unfortunately, don't put too much stock in things like the long-running conflict with the Palestinians or the future of the settlements or even Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. There are segments of Israeli society, progressive segments, that do very much care about those issues. But for most Israelis, I think it's more quotidian concerns that impact what they think and how they vote.
I think the best example is a few weeks ago when the West Bank annexation was still on the table, there was a demonstration in Tel Aviv that I attended. There were perhaps 2,000 people there. And that's being charitable. A week or two after that, there was a demonstration demanding economic relief due to the second wave of COVID, and there were anywhere between 50,000-70,000 people in the same square. So I think that tells you where the public's priorities are at the moment.
GD: What do Israelis make of the recent Trump-brokered peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates?
NZ: Even in the liberal bastion of Tel Aviv, approval for this deal with the UAE is quite high. Even Israelis who view many things quite cynically and are quite skeptical and critical of Bibi Netanyahu, concede that this is a historic agreement. It's only the third Arab state willing to make peace with Israel in the 70-plus years that Israel has been around.
The Emirates as well are making a big push to attract Israelis which is different than previous peace treaties between Israel and Egypt or Israel and Jordan, where it's a much colder peace. The Emiratis, both commercially as well as politically, are making the big "hearts and minds" push for the Israeli public, perhaps with an eye towards influencing certain decisions that come out of Washington.
GD: How much did the outcome of the 2016 US election affect Israel and Israeli politics?
NZ: I don't think you can overstate the impact that the 2016 US election had on Israel and Israeli politics. Trump's foreign policy, and Trump's relationship with Israel is very different than anything that would have come out of a Hillary Clinton administration.
A Clinton administration would not have moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. A Clinton administration certainly would not have put out a peace plan like the Trump administration did this past January, heavily tilted towards the Israelis — literally written by "Bibi" Netanyahu.
I think you would've seen a lot more friction between the Netanyahu government and the Clinton administration. And so Bibi himself couldn't have positioned himself as this kind of indispensable go-between between Israel and America. This kind of close friend of the American president, almost a Trump whisperer.
Also, you've seen many states, including recently the UAE, make a decision that the road to Washington, the road to Trump's heart runs through Jerusalem. You now see Sudan trying to get its name off the [state-sanctioned] terror list by perhaps cutting its own normalization agreement with Israel.
This interview is part of the GZERO project Global voices on the US election, which you can find in full here.