A Note to Political Observers: Israelis Are Not Americans
When I moved to Israel four years ago, I assumed I would have fewer conversations about the president of the United States. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I almost never initiate the conversations, and they are almost always with Americans who have an unfavorable view of President Trump. The discussions generally start with a question along the lines of, “How can Israelis like Trump? Don’t they see he’s such a …?” The questions are certainly normal, but their premise ignores a critical fact — Israelis are not Americans. Trying to understand Israeli views of any president by applying an American standard just doesn’t work.
Recently, inflammatory statements made by former President Trump in an interview with Israeli journalist Barak Ravid have made headlines. The statements have triggered the same questions, but really, they reinforce the basic fact that it is folly to try and connect Israeli views on a president to party, personality, or even their general competence as president. Unlike Americans who need to consider what is best for the country as a whole, for many Israelis, it is all about what US presidents do in relation to Israel.
When it comes to a foreign leader, Israelis care first and foremost, if not exclusively, about how that leader’s policies impact Israel, and whether their actions and words demonstrate that they have Israel’s best interests at heart. Most of what inspires or embarrasses Americans about a president’s conduct doesn’t have the same impact on Israelis, or the citizens of any other country, to the extent they are even aware of the issues. It can be dizzying for an American to try and follow the minute-by-minute outrages on broadcast, cable, and social media. To expect an Israeli to follow it all is completely unrealistic. While this should not come as a great shock, sometimes it still does.
Were an American to ask the average Israeli whether they like President Obama’s health care law, or if they think the debt ceiling should be raised, they would be as likely to get a comprehensive answer as if the Israeli asked them which Health Maintenance Organization they prefer, or whether they think buses should run on Saturdays. It isn’t that Israelis don’t care about the real human impact of immigration, health care, or social policy in the United States; it is that they, like all people, are generally immersed in their own lives and the issues facing their family, community, and country. It is unfair to expect more.
This is not a blanket statement that covers all Israelis. For instance, it doesn’t apply to most American immigrants, people who have spent years working or studying in the United States, or those seriously engaged in foreign affairs. For each of these relatively small groups, there is a reasonable expectation that they will have a greater interest and knowledge of internal American issues and politics. The fact that these are also the groups most likely to be in regular contact with American family, friends, and colleagues only reinforces the false premise that most Israelis are immersed in American political discourse.
While many Israelis have an impressive command of English, most do not follow American news in detail. Current events in the United States do elicit more interest in Israel than events from just about any other country, but the debates that consume Americans still don’t register at nearly the same level.
Therefore, when asked if they approve or disapprove of the president in an opinion poll, Israelis don’t see the question the same way an American would. They see it through an Israeli-specific lens. Most Israelis believe Jerusalem is the capital of the country, that the Golan Heights must remain part of Israel forever, that the JCPOA was a terrible deal, and that normalization with Arab states is a very positive step. On each of those issues, most Israelis saw President Trump’s policies as more supportive than President Obama’s policies. That doesn’t necessarily mean they think President Trump was a better president, or that they would be more likely to agree with him on any other policy, if they were American citizens. It simply means they believe he was more supportive on the issues he dealt with that they directly care about.
This is not a phenomenon that will change. And it is not tied to American partisan politics. Israelis care if someone is a Likudnik or Laborite, but they don’t care if someone is a Democrat or Republican. Bill Clinton was popular in Israel because Israelis felt he genuinely cared about their welfare, not because he was a Democrat. His utterance of a single Hebrew phrase at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, and the emotion he showed, meant more to most Israelis than his personal scandals or stewardship of a strong economy. Donald Trump was popular in Israel because Israelis believed his policies advanced Israel’s national interests. His partisan identification, and his controversial statements and actions were far less relevant.
When it comes to the average Israeli doctor, business owner, cab driver, engineer, or teacher, their opinion will usually be based on Israel and Israel alone, and they will form their opinion based on whether the president’s policies meet their view of what is best for Israel.
Justin Pozmanter is a publishing Adjunct at The MirYam Institute. He is a former foreign policy advisor to Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. Before making aliyah, he worked at AIPAC.