A week before the 2013 Israeli election, Donald Trump uploaded a surprising video to YouTube. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was facing fierce opposition from two new political stars – Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett – and while polls showed him winning, there was some doubt how easily he would succeed in forming a coalition.
In the video, Trump threw his support behind Netanyahu. “You truly have a great prime minister – Benjamin Netanyahu,” Trump said in the short video. “There is nobody like him. He’s a winner, he’s highly respected, and he’s highly thought of by all... so vote for Benjamin. Terrific guy, terrific leader.”
That was January 2013. It would be another 17 months before Trump would announce his bid for the White House. Was he thinking already then about making a run and working one day with Netanyahu? Anything is possible.
On Tuesday night, Netanyahu went to sleep thinking – like the rest of the world – that he would wake up to Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States.
While Netanyahu and Clinton had their differences over the years – there were a number of hostile conversations between the two when she was secretary of state – there seemed to be a feeling in Jerusalem that she was the preferred candidate for Israel. Netanyahu could anticipate what Clinton would do and what her policies would be when it comes to Israel.
When Haim Saban – the Israeli-American billionaire and Clinton supporter – was in Israel a few months ago, he met with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and other Israeli politicians. Like the rest of the world, Israel saw Clinton as president, and Saban was someone Netanyahu was investing in to help smooth over difficult issues that were bound to come up.
But when Netanyahu woke up in his Jerusalem residence, the elections were heading in a completely different direction. Within a few hours, Trump had declared victory.
Trump is an enigma. His positions on Israel have swung throughout the campaign. Early on, he said he would be “neutral” when it comes to the Palestinian conflict, and also that he would demand that allies pay for the assistance they receive from the US. He then swung in the other direction. Advisers of his said he would support construction in West Bank settlements, would oppose a Palestinian state, and would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, Trump is something of a “dream come true” for Netanyahu. Throughout all of his terms as prime minister, Netanyahu – often described as the ultimate Israeli version of a Republican – has worked only with Democratic presidents. In the 1990s it was Bill Clinton, and for the last eight years it has been Barack Obama.
The difference is that Trump is not really a Republican. He doesn’t come from the party’s rank and file, and doesn’t necessarily adhere to its policies and ideology.
If that’s what he wanted, Netanyahu would not have been alone in his desire to see Clinton as the next president.
According to polls in Israel – even though polls cannot really be trusted after Tuesday’s mega survey disaster – Israelis preferred Clinton as president. The most recent poll, taken just a few weeks ago, found that 49% of Israelis preferred Clinton compared with 32% who preferred Trump.
Why the discrepancy?
On the surface, Trump should have been appealing for the Israeli people. A dominant personality, or “winner” as he likes to call himself, surrounded by pro-Israel advisers with a seemingly positive track record when it comes to Israel.
This is without even comparing Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence – one of the staunchest and outspoken supporters of Israel in the US government – to Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, a liberal democrat who boycotted Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last year.
Even if they are not completely accurate, what the polls do indicate is that Israelis look for a leader with a steady hand. That is why Israelis have consistently voted for Netanyahu, and would likely reelect him if elections were held in the near future.
Israelis dismiss different alternatives – Lapid, Bennett, Kahlon, Liberman and Herzog – as inexperienced, too extreme, immature, or too fake. Netanyahu, they believe, leads them with a steady hand, and that is what they also saw in Clinton: someone with experience, knowledge of the region, and someone they thought they could rely on.
What people didn’t expect though was the overwhelming populist revolt that Americans would wage with this election against the government and the political elites. It seems that a direct line can be drawn between Donald Trump’s victory and two other historic votes that took place recently.
First there was Brexit. Then-British prime minister David Cameron openly campaigned and urged Britons to vote in favor of staying in the European Union. The people refused to listen and voted against Cameron, pushing him to resign.
In October, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos brought the peace deal he had negotiated with FARC for a national referendum. Instead of approving the deal and ending a 52-year war, Colombians rejected it.
The presidential elections on Tuesday were similar. Britons voted against the EU and the Colombians voted against a peace deal. The vote for Trump was against every imaginable American establishment – the Democratic and Republican parties, Obama, the Senate, and the Congress. Basically, the entire political establishment and system of government America has known since its inception.
This was something pollsters apparently couldn’t read. They couldn’t sense the disappointment, frustration and anger white Americans felt for Clinton and the political establishment. Maybe people lied in polls. Maybe they didn’t. It doesn’t really matter anymore. What we witnessed was the formation of a massive movement that took over the White House and is probably not done yet.
On Wednesday, just hours after Trump’s victory speech, I spoke with David Friedman, a New York lawyer and close friend of Trump who has served as the president- elect’s Israel adviser throughout the campaign, and is rumored to be the next US ambassador to Israel.
“The level of friendship between the US and Israel is going to grow like never before, and it will be better than ever, even the way it was under Republican administrations in the past,” Friedman told me.
Together with his co-chair on the Trump Israel Advocacy Committee Jason Greenblatt, Friedman promised throughout the campaign that relations between the two countries would dramatically improve, almost like hitting a reset button. According to a document they issued on the eve of the election, Greenblatt and Friedman said that a Trump administration would not automatically support the establishment of a Palestinian state. That is a 180-degree change in US policy.
“The US cannot support the creation of a new state where terrorism is financially incentivized, terrorists are celebrated by political parties and government institutions, and the corrupt diversion of foreign aid is rampant,” the document says.
Two other issues that seem to align Trump and Netanyahu are Iran and construction in West Bank settlements.
Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iran deal – highlighted by his controversial speech to Congress in 2015 – made him the odd man out in the US. From this week, the next president of the US is a man just as opposed to the deal.
Trump has called the nuclear pact a “disaster,” “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and that his “No. 1 priority” would be to dismantle it.
Whether he will be able to cancel the deal or make changes remains to be seen, but this new joint viewpoint could translate into new policy.
On settlement construction, Trump has signaled that he would be different than the current administration, which Israel has consistently clashed with for the past eight years whenever new housing plans were announced in Jerusalem or the West Bank. With Trump, that won’t seem to be the case.
Is this certain? Not exactly. A lot can still change, and Israel is not the only ally and country the US will have to work with. Trump will find a series of challenges and constraints when he enters the Oval Office on January 20. Israel will just be one of them, and will need to fit into a larger foreign policy puzzle.
When it comes to campaign promises though, Israel would do well to remember what its own prime minister Levi Eshkol once said. “Yes, I promised, but I didn’t promise to follow through.”
Either way, starting on January 20, a new era will begin in Israeli-US relations. Time will tell how it will be defined.
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