TEL AVIV — This might be the most surprising poll from a wild, unpredictable 2016 campaign: One in four Israeli Jews would vote for Donald Trump.
The real estate mogul does not have a coherent position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, except to break with decades of Republican orthodoxy and announce that he would be “neutral.” His GOP rivals repeated that line endlessly, hoping it would blunt Trump’s rise in the polls. It didn’t.
His campaign, run in the style of an authoritarian strongman, has earned him sharp criticism from American Jews, the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. And his backers include a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan who hopes Trump will “rehabilitate” Hitler’s image, a statement that ought to give pause to anyone in Israel. Indeed, the big question looming over this week’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention is just how many delegates will walk out during Trump’s speech.
Yet, a recent poll found Trump was by far Israel’s favorite GOP candidate, and the second-most popular overall. A plurality even thought he would be best at “representing Israel’s interests,” better than Hillary Clinton, with her decades of advocacy at the highest levels of government.
Those numbers could rise further still, after a spate of positive coverage in Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Israel HaYom, owned by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. After months of scant coverage, the shift is a sign that Adelson—a major force in both Israeli and American politics—is reluctantly embracing Trump.
All of this presents a major dilemma for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has worked for years to align Israel with the GOP. The party’s presumptive nominee is now being spurned by the same establishment figures, men like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who make up Netanyahu’s “base” in Washington. Trump has no emotional attachment to Israel. And his success has upended the long-held belief that Republican voters care deeply about a candidate’s position on Israel.
In the United States, Trump has scrambled the political map, shattering the decades-old alliance between social conservatives and the Republican economic elite. In Israel, the confusion could become even more acute. Trump has already violated some of the tenets of the “special relationship.” And while his tough-guy persona and hostility toward Muslims have earned him surprising support from Israeli conservatives, his ascent is also a source of unease for policymakers: It creates a schism between an Israel that needs to work with Trump, and American Jews who despise him—and it could end up undermining the marriage between the GOP’s pro-Israel foreign policy elite and the broader Republican electorate.
“The government is in a bind,” says Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat and adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “Trump in this respect is so unpredictable. If I were advising Netanyahu, or indeed if I were Netanyahu himself, I would shut up for a few months.”
As with most of his policy positions, Trump’s views on Israel are a bit of a mystery. The “positions” page on his website doesn’t mention the Middle East. And his choice of foreign policy advisers offers little insight, because he has named only one: Donald Trump.
When he does talk about Israel, he offers platitudes and snippets of biography, like his daughter Ivanka’s conversion to Judaism. The candidate has made much of his role as the grand marshal of the 2004 Salute to Israel Parade, an entirely symbolic act. (Other previous marshals include the president of a circuit board company and a 13-year-old girl.)
The closest he came to a policy statement was on February 17, when Trump said he would be “sort of a neutral guy” when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “A lot of people have gone down in flames trying to make that deal. So I don’t want to say whose fault is it,” he said at a town hall in Charleston. He doubled down the following week at a CNN debate in Texas: “It doesn’t help if I start saying I’m very pro-Israel,” he told Wolf Blitzer.
His chief opponents, on the other hand, both Republican and Democratic, have long records of supporting Israel. Ted Cruz promised to “rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal” on his first day in office. Both he and Marco Rubio vowed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, long a demand of the Israeli right.
Clinton, of course, has publicly backed Israel for decades, as first lady, senator and secretary of state. She now retroactively criticizes the Obama administration’s 2009 push for a settlement freeze, a policy she promoted at the State Department, and promised to invite Netanyahu to the White House “in my first month in office.”
It was no surprise that Clinton won the largest share of the Israeli vote, 38 percent, in a poll conducted earlier this month by Walla, the country’s most popular online portal.
But Trump placed a surprising second, with 23 percent, and 26 percent among Israeli Jews. Rubio, for all the positive coverage he got in the conservative daily Israel HaYom and elsewhere, scored just 4 percent. More striking, when asked which candidate would best represent Israel’s interests, a plurality picked Trump: He edged out Clinton, 25-24.
He finds his support largely on the Israeli right. “After a Barack, you always need a strong man,” quips one Tel Aviv restaurant owner and Likud voter (a play on words: Ehud Barak’s short-lived premiership ended with a landslide 2001 defeat to Ariel Sharon). Conservatives dismiss Cruz as too strange and Christian, and Rubio as too much like Isaac Herzog, the baby-faced Labor chief who failed to unseat Netanyahu last year.
The thrice-married mogul who once owned the Miss USA pageant has even received favorable coverage in the ultra-Orthodox media; one profile noted his Jewish business associates, and the fact that his daughter keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath.
His negative comments about Muslims don’t hurt him in Israel, either. “The Israeli public is getting everything through the Israeli media in Hebrew, so it’s not like they see everything,” says Tal Schneider, an Israeli political analyst. “They don’t grasp the entire candidate, they just see his anti-Muslim sentiment, and then they say to themselves, ‘ah, obviously we know that, because we live with the Muslims here.’”
This is certainly Netanyahu’s view, though he professes neutrality in U.S. politics: Israel’s long-serving prime minister has yoked his Likud party, and his country, to the Republicans. He welcomed Mitt Romney to Jerusalem during the 2012 campaign; his ambassador in D.C., Ron Dermer, worked on Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America; and of course there was last year’s infamous Iran speech, coordinated with Congressional Republicans instead of the White House.
A Gallup poll released last month found Americans from both parties were still overwhelmingly more sympathetic to Israel than the Palestinians. On questions of policy, though—rather than emotion—there are some signs of a split. A December poll from Brookings found a clear partisan divide: 76 percent of Republicans said a candidate’s position on Israel was deeply important to them, compared to 49 percent of Democrats; nearly half of Democrats, but only a quarter of Republicans, thought Israel had too much influence on U.S. policy. Asked how the United States ought to respond to continued settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, 49 percent of Democrats chose sanctions, versus 26 percent of Republicans.