Whether Trump or Biden wins on Election Day, US-Israel ties will endure

Concern that the person in the Oval Office will have a life-and-death impact on Israel’s fate is a throwback to a different place and a different time

THE ISRAELI and the American flags are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 14, 2019, to mark one year since the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (photo credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)
THE ISRAELI and the American flags are screened on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, on May 14, 2019, to mark one year since the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
(photo credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)
When US elections roll around every four years, Israelis – and Jews abroad who care about Israel – contemplate, speculate, fret and worry about what the results will mean for the Jewish state.
When a sitting president up for reelection has been highly critical of Israel during his first term – say a Barack Obama – there will be endless conjecture that if reelected for a second one he will be free of any future electoral considerations and able to take out all his wrath on the country.
And when the sitting president has been as unabashedly supportive of Israel as the current one, President Donald Trump, there is concern that if he loses, his successor and his party may dramatically change course, and Israel will suffer the dire consequences.
This reflects a Jewish insecurity with deep roots, roots that extend as far back as the people of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. As it is written in the Book of Exodus (1:8), “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.”
The Torah tells of a new pharaoh who came to power in Egypt without any positive recollection or feelings toward Joseph, and who quickly and cruelly put an end to the good years that the Hebrews had enjoyed in the land during Joseph’s years there.
The message was deeply ingrained: the fate of the Jews at a particular moment in time is dependent on the goodwill of the leader. If that leader is positively predisposed to the Jews – be it a pharaoh, emperor, satrap, king, pope, prince, czar, prime minister or president – then the Jews will flourish. But if not, God forbid, then woe betide us, for persecution, pain and endless problems will soon follow.
And, of course, this has been the case throughout history. Leaders of empires or provinces or states would die or otherwise be replaced and – seemingly at a whim – the fate of the Jews could change dramatically.
Then along came Zionism, and with it the idea that when the Jews return to their land, when they gain sovereignty and an independent state, then they will no longer be dependent on the whims and predilections of foreign rulers, as powerful as they may be. Rather, the Jews will control their own destiny.
That’s the theory.
In practice, though, the identity of the leaders of key countries abroad does have a significant impact on us, even after we attained statehood.
For instance, it was fortuitous that Harry Truman, who was positively predisposed to Zionism, was the US president in 1948, and not – say – his secretary of state George Marshall. It was also good that Ronald Reagan, who had a warm feeling toward Israel and Jews, was the US president during the difficult days of the early 1980s – the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the First Lebanon War – rather than Jimmy Carter, who, despite his brokering of the peace accord with Egypt, harbored a deep antagonism toward Israel, especially toward its leader at the time, Menachem Begin.
BUT A lot has changed in the intervening years. Israel is not the toddler that it was in the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, in need of a parent’s protection just to cross the dangerous Mideast street. It has grown into a powerful, strong adult in its own right.
Still, even a powerful, strong adult needs friends, and it is not as if Israel does not still need the strong support and friendship of the United States. But it is not as totally dependent on that support and friendship as it was in its toddler years.
Even more importantly, the depth and breadth of Israel’s relationship with the United States has changed. In the 1950s Israel had relatively little to offer the US, whether strategically, militarily or economically. The same is not true today. As a result, the goodwill of the person at the top of the ladder is not the only determining factor in the relationship, because there are many rungs below him binding the two countries together.
So when Jews are concerned that the election of one president or another in the United States will have a life-and-death impact on Israel’s fate, it is a throwback to a different place and a different time.
This is not to say that the identity of the president is not extremely important in setting both the tone and tenor of the US-Israel relationship. Israel, and those who support it, obviously want to see a president friendly both to Israel and the government at the time, because that just makes life for it in the region, and in the international arena, that much easier.
Things, for instance, were tough when George H.W. Bush was president, and his counterpart in Israel was prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Things improved when the US president was Bill Clinton, and Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister.
The relationship between the leaders at the top is important, but it is not the only element that is important, nor the only component in the US-Israel relationship.
There is also a critical defense/security/intelligence component, there is a very favorable Congress, supportive public opinion, and an economic relationship that binds the countries much closer today than in the ’50s, ’70s or even the ’90s. And what that all means is that there are enough forces at work today to ensure that the relationship will continue and grow – because it is in the interests of both parties that it do so – regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office.
The “Obibi Years” – that eight-year period when Obama governed in the US, and Netanyahu in Israel – will not go down as the golden age in Israel-US relations. The disagreements between Jerusalem and Washington on policy and action were constant and intense.
Yet the relationship survived firmly intact, proof that the relationship is strong enough to withstand a US government very critical of Israeli policies. Is it easy or pleasant? No, but it is also not the end of the world.