Monday, November 19, 2018

Opinion | Israel’s Vote Goes to the GOP

Most Israelis see the midterms through the prism of their own geopolitical interests.

Opinion | Israel’s Vote Goes to the GOP

Most Israelis see the midterms through the prism of their own geopolitical interests.
September 6, 2018 in 2018 September-October, Featured
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Israelis would find this column boring. They aren’t interested in American midterm elections, and they have a point. There are few familiar faces in the drama, few specific races of great consequence for Israel, a lot of messy confusion and a lot of details to consider as this complicated part of the American political system moves forward. Do we (namely, most Israelis, this writer excluded) really care who wins New York’s 14th Congressional District, and whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes it to the great chamber? We don’t.

But as Israelis, we care about the big picture—or maybe it’s the small picture, depending on your point of view. The Israel picture, while barely a trifle to most Americans, is almost everything to us. We consider only one question: Will the next Congress be supportive of Israel, and of President Donald Trump’s support for Israel? And if that question sounds odd to most American Jews, well, that’s an old story, as old as the story of U.S.-Israel relations.

Note that asking the question this way essentially gives an answer to what Israel wants. It wants a Congress supportive of what it sees as Trump’s support for Israel. It knows that only one party can guarantee such an outcome—and that this will not be the Democratic Party. So yes, Israel would like the GOP to retain its majority and is somewhat nervous about the other, more likely, option.

Israeli nervousness is simple to justify if you use poll numbers. More Democrats than Republicans openly express views highly critical of Israel. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 27 percent of Democrats “sympathize with” Israel compared to 79 percent of Republicans. More Democrats still refuse to acknowledge that the Iran deal, to which they gave their support, was a misguided move by the Obama administration. Many Democrats feel that the U.S. should bestow tough love on Israel—a politically acceptable code term for less love. Almost half of all Democratic voters (46 percent) feel that the current president “is favoring Israel too much.” It seems as if many Democrats subconsciously mesh President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a unified character whom they dislike. According to Pew, “Nearly three times as many Republicans (52 percent) as Democrats (18 percent) have favorable impressions of Israel’s leader.” Many Democrats, Israelis infer from this, must have a gut feeling that goes as follows: Trumpism is what we battle, Israel is fond of Trump, hence Israel is also an entity we must battle.

Indeed, it is hard to deny that Israelis, generally speaking, are fond of Trump. Of course, they recognize his weaknesses and his unusual personality. Some of them find this reprehensible; some consider it amusing. But the bottom line is that they don’t much care about his character flaws, as long as these include the tendency to cut through Middle East diplomatic nonsense. From the Israeli standpoint, Trump won’t give in to Iranian bullying, he won’t appease a Turkish thug, he won’t butter up a rejectionist Palestinian leadership, he won’t accept lies (such as the assertion that Iran is becoming more moderate), he won’t accept bias (such as the notion that the Middle East situation is all Israel’s fault). For now, he seems like the real deal.

We know that most Americans don’t see him this way. We know that most readers of this magazine (that is, American Jews) don’t see it this way either. We know that some of them cringe at the very thought that Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, is one of the few countries in the world in which Trump is well-liked and appreciated. But that’s the way it is. Seventy-four percent of Jewish Israelis believe that Israeli interests are important to Trump, according to the Peace Index poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute; 70 percent believe that he is more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian. In a recent survey, Trump’s approval among Israelis in general was compared to Barack Obama’s. The result was a lopsided 49-19 percent.

The rational outcome of these beliefs is preferring a GOP (party of Trump) victory over a Democratic one (to Israelis, still the party of Obama) in the midterms.

Of course, this does not count for much. Americans will go to the polls to vote for or against many things, among which Israel’s preference is hardly an important item. Like most other countries in the world, Israel has no say in American elections but will surely feel its consequences. If Ocasio-Cortez makes it to the great chamber (whether she does or does not support a “two-state solution” or, as I suspect is the likeliest case, just doesn’t have a clue), it could affect our security. If Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, who called Israel an “apartheid regime,” makes it to Congress, it could affect our security. If Rashida Tlaib, who said that she would “absolutely” support cutting military aid to Israel, makes it to Congress, it could affect our security, or at least—given the relatively little impact the House of Representatives has on foreign policy—it could negatively affect the way Americans debate issues that affect that security.

Still, most of the voters for Ocasio-Cortez and Omar and Tlaib will not be thinking about Israel when they vote. They will think about Trump, and immigration, and health care, and socialism, and #MeToo, and intersectionality, and the so-called alt-right, and the Russia investigation. They—and this includes most Jewish Americans—don’t much care about Israel’s preferences. Admittedly, Israel doesn’t care much about theirs either.

Shmuel Rosner is a writer, editor and researcher based in Tel Aviv.

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