The race to the White House: The Mideast view

Israelis concerned at the rough waters lapping around their borders can be acutely aware of the ripples caused by US foreign policy, even when not directly related to the Jewish state.

By ROBERT SWIFT/ THE MEDIA LINE
February 6, 2016 03:12
4 minute read.
The South Lawn of the White House

The South Lawn of the White House. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Given what you may have heard about Israelis’ attitudes towards President Barack Obama, you’d be forgiven for thinking they would be gleeful about the upcoming election in the United States.

You’d be right about some.

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“Obama's decision to withdraw from the region and abandon the Middle East to Iranian and Russian influence threatens the security of Israel and many Arab states. A Republican president will attempt to reverse this policy,” Mark Zell, the chairman of Israel’s branch of Republicans Abroad, declared to The Media Line.

This will not surprise American viewers already saturated in savvy spokespersons’ doublespeak, but when asked about the GOP contenders Zell had more negative comments about the Democratic candidates than positive observations regarding his fellow party members. Zell described Ted Cruz, the victor of the Iowa primary, as a “closet isolationist.” Marco Rubio on the other hand may be a “neocon,” the Republican said, noting that both men appeared to be in a “virtual tie” with the previous front runner, Donald Trump.

A vote for Hillary Clinton would essentially be a continuation of the Obama administration, Zell argued, while underscoring that Bernie Sanders would be even worse for Israel. “He’s been very cautious about his Jewish identity and won’t say much about Israeli-Palestinian issues,” the chairman observed. 

He is not the only Israeli to have keenly observed the Iowa caucuses. “Because the relationship between Israel and America is paramount to Israel’s security and economy it’s the most important relationship Israel has,” Sheldon Schorer, representative of the Democratic Party in Israel, told The Media Line.

Some of Schorer‘s views on the candidates chimed with that of his Republican counterpart. Shorer agreed that Cruz is “an isolationist,” noting that “it’s a 19th century view which doesn’t translate well into the 21st century.”



Of the two Democratic contenders, Schorer said that Sanders, in fact, better reflects the current Commander-in-Chief’s positions, adding that “his views would be closer to Obama in terms of settlements.”

If those with a stake in the game are already getting excited, ordinary Israelis are not yet ready to jump on the bandwagon.
One reason onlookers in the Jewish State might not be ready to cheer on their favorites for next American president is that they don’t really know who they are.

“Israelis are mostly familiar with only two characters – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” Israel Waismel-Manor, an expert in American politics at Haifa University, told The Media Line. “(Israelis) are almost ignorant of who Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio are and they have no idea who Rand Paul or Christie are,” he said.

Despite not being fully versed about all the extras, Israelis are generally not shy about the two big faces. “Hillary Clinton is seen as the continuation of Obama and so must be all things bad, for most people,” Waismel-Manor said. The leading Republican candidate does not share this problem. “Donald Trump, for some he may be seen as a buffoon, on the other hand many (Israelis) like what they hear…when he says ‘I’m going to bomb the Sh*t out of ISIS,’” Waismel-Manor explained.

While it is true that many Israelis cannot match the names to the faces, there is a definite left-right split, Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line.

Diskin pointed out that whereas Israeli Jews skew to the right, American Jews have always supported Democratic presidential candidates by huge margins.

Although Israeli interest in the world’s most expensive electoral season, which to many looks like a crass popularity contest, might not have yet peaked, Israelis are well aware that the outcome is important to them. The importance of the alliance with the United States is not lost on locals, Diskin said, mentioning intelligence-sharing and the American diplomatic shield and as only two major benefits. “Israelis are involved not just out of curiosity, it’s not like someone in the Netherlands making bets on who is going to win. It is by far more than that,” he said.

Some go further, suggesting that Israel’s stake in the US is not merely that of a regional-player looking up to its super-power ally. “Israelis see how dangerous not only the neighborhood but also the international balance without American leadership (is),” Lenny Ben-David, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ director of publications, told The Media Line. A desire exists for the US to “take on its traditional role of the last one-hundred years,” Ben-David, a former veteran American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffer, said.

Israelis concerned at the rough waters lapping around their borders can be acutely aware of the ripples caused by US foreign policy, even when not directly related to the Jewish state, and many of them view the election race through this prism.

It is for this reason that negative views towards the current US administration are not uncommon. “After the experience with Obama when everybody assured Israel ‘he’ll be fine’ I think Israelis will be a little more skeptical about the situation,” Ben-David suggested, though he said this does not mean Israelis would necessarily be more supportive of the Republican candidate.

For many Israelis though, at this stage in the race, there’s one big draw to the election and that is entertainment. “I think like many people around the world and even in America we are watching this for the amusement of it,” Israel Waismel-Manor, comparing the spectacle of the campaigning to a reality TV survivor show.

“We are eagerly awaiting the next few months to see who will be kicked out of the Island,” he concluded.

For more stories from the Media line



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