Opinion // Israel Is Sitting This One Out
by Shmuel Rosner
Even Bibi Netanyahu has gone quiet on this year’s U.S. presidential election.
When our first son was 6 or 7 years old, my wife took him to a movie and a meal with one of his best friends. They were supposed to be having fun, but as often happens with children, the more effort one puts in, the less gratitude they offer. At one point, when my wife realized that the friend wasn’t happy, she asked him—I assume with a tone of slight annoyance, though luckily I was not there—“So what do you want?” His answer has been a maxim in our family ever since: “What I want I won’t get.”
“What I want I won’t get” is our family way of saying, “We are disappointed, because we were spoiled to the point of believing that we deserve something that we will not get.” “What I want I won’t get” is also an excellent point of departure for any discussion of Israel’s expectations concerning the U.S. election of 2016. In fact, it works for Americans, too. Just as Americans understand that this time around what they want is not going to happen, so does Israel.
It is hardly a secret that in 2016 Americans are unhappy with the offerings of their political system. They look at Donald Trump and do not see a president. They look at Hillary Clinton and feel déjà vu. For Israel, the reasons for unhappiness are slightly but not completely different. Israelis look at Trump and do not have the sense that this man is stable enough to be trustworthy. Israelis look at Clinton and know that they can trust her—they can trust her to pick a fight with their elected government. That is also déjà vu.
Israelis, of course, do not vote in American elections, and their interest in this process is fairly narrow-minded: They want the next American president to be friendlier toward Israel than the current one. They want him or her to be as friendly as they come, as understanding as possible, as supportive as he or she can be. In some election cycles, the choice is easy. In 2004, they had no trouble understanding that George W. Bush was better from an Israeli standpoint than John Kerry. The people and their government—Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was hardly shy about it—wanted Bush to win. In 2008 and 2012, Israelis and their government—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hardly shy about it—wanted the candidate that was not Barack Obama to win, and they were twice disappointed.
This year is different. The people are confused and their government is shy. It is shy because of bitter past experience. Netanyahu does not want to repeat a mistake by backing yet another losing candidate. His gestures toward Mitt Romney four years ago were interpreted as supportive of him, and they angered many Americans who do not appreciate Israeli intervention in their election process (though they don’t appear to have any such problem when the United States bluntly intervenes in Israeli elections).
But it is more than just apprehension over possible negative consequences. Israel’s government is shy this time because it is not at all clear that Netanyahu has a favorite. Much like our friend’s kid—who is now a soldier—Netanyahu knows that “what he wants he won’t get.” He cannot get a Marco Rubio, who could have been an easy favorite of Israelis and their leaders. He cannot get a candidate with, first, a clear track record of support for Israel; second, a worldview that makes him or her prone to agree with the way Israel sees the world around it; third, no baggage that makes him or her prone to battle the Israeli government; and fourth, a personality that is easy to deal with.
Israel can get a supportive track record and a congenial worldview (for a Democrat) but also baggage and a difficult personality (as seen through a history of battling with Netanyahu) in Clinton. Or Israel can get no baggage but not much else in Trump. No wonder the public is confused. One survey says that Israelis want Clinton to win; in another survey it says they prefer Trump. In one survey it says that Trump is friendlier toward Israel but that Clinton is still the better candidate.
The government is silent, and theoretically there should be nothing new about that. The Israeli government is supposed to be silent when Americans go to the polls. Only most times, even though the government is silent, even though it officially says that Israel has no position other than everybody-will-be-a-friend, we know what it wants. This time we don’t, except for this: According to a poll of Israelis, any one of the current presidential candidates would be better, at least initially, than President Obama. So that’s something.
Shmuel Rosner is a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, chief political editor for The L.A. Jewish Journal and a columnist for Israel’s Maariv.