What Trump’s Victory in Israel Means

Donald Trump meets Israeli PM Netanyahu in New York. Source: Republicans Overseas Israel, Facebook.
Trump speaks to Israeli-American voters via video conference in occupied Jerusalem. Source: Republicans Overseas Israel, Facebook.
Trump speaks to Israeli-American voters via video conference in occupied Jerusalem. Source: Republicans Overseas Israel, Facebook.

Trump won his first state: Israel. According to an early voter exit poll by iVoteIsrael, he received 49% of the Israeli-American vote, compared to Clinton’s 44%. The Republican candidate has been actively campaigning in Israel. Republicans Overseas Israel, a get-out-the-vote agency, organized over a dozen events supporting Trump. On October 28, he spoke to a rally of supporters in occupied Jerusalem via video conference. Shortly after, his campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee shared a policy brief stating Trump’s unequivocal support for Israel.

Because the campaign trail has been riddled with controversy and the race is proving a close call in some swing states, both candidates have intensified their efforts to court voters from key demographics. As a relatively small demographic, Israeli-Americans aren’t a significant electoral concern, and likely won’t affect the overall outcome of the election. A November 7 forecast shows Clinton is leading Trump by at least 3% of the popular vote, receiving 293 electoral votes. Nonetheless, Abe Katsman, an organizer with Republicans Overseas Israel, thinks otherwise. “You look at Florida in 2000, where the election came down to [537] votes. Florida was a state in 2012 where there were 7,000 votes from Israel. That can make a difference,” he told CNN in September.

iVoteIsrael campaign poster. Source: iVoteIsrael, Facebook.
iVoteIsrael campaign poster. Source: iVoteIsrael, Facebook.

One reason for Katsman’s view is low voter turnout here at home. This concern has been a challenge for the Clinton camp. Early voter surveys show African-Americans, a key demographic for democrats, are turning out in fewer numbers than in previous election cycles. Meanwhile, GOP campaigners in Israel estimate there are 200,000 – 400,000 eligible voters living in Israel, including 120,000 registered voters, of whom at least 30,000 cast a vote in this election so far. However, there is one caveat that shatters their hopes of swaying the result in Trump’s favor: these numbers do not lend confidence. They are merely loose estimates. There has not been a single formal census of Israeli-Americans, and no one knows where exactly they are registered in the US. Dahlia Scheindlin, a longtime Israeli campaign pollster and strategist, told Haaretz “we are talking about a tiny, scattered population with only a tinier portion from swing states.” Only in the unlikely scenario of a race as close as it was in the Florida 2000 election would the impact of Israeli-American voters be significant. Even then, the picture wouldn’t be clear because other voting dual citizens would have an influence too.

From Israel to the White House

The news of Trump winning the Israeli-American vote is not remarkable. This group of voters has shown a tendency to support GOP candidates during previous election cycles. According to 2012 local exit polls, Mitt Romney won the Israeli vote by 85%. By contrast, in the United States, the Jewish American vote traditionally goes for Democrats. In 2012, Obama received 69%; and 61% of likely Jewish American voters support Clinton. In this respect, Trump’s victory in Israel is revealing for two reasons. First, it reinforces a widening rift between the two groups by challenging the expectation that Israeli-Americans would follow the lead of their counterparts in the US. Second, according to an October poll of Israeli-American voters by the Israel Democracy Institute, Clinton was actually slated as Israel’s preferred choice, receiving 55% on popularity and 42% on whether she is a preferable candidate from Israel’s standpoint. Trump, on the other hand, received 25% and 26.5%, respectively.

clinton-abbas-bibiIsraeli perception of the candidates help discern these numbers and provide insight into why Trump beat Clinton in Israel. As a newcomer to politics, Trump resembles Israel’s own drift rightward which has been defined by similarly bombastic and populist politicians. Following years of frosty relations with the White House, it is unsurprising that a majority of Israeli-American voters find solace with Trump. Clinton, on the other hand, represents a continuation of Obama’s status quo. Plus, her record with Israel as Secretary of State under Obama’s reign has not been forgotten, including an unwelcome demand that Netanyahu must show more sincerity about his commitment to peace.

Additionally, an April 2016 Israel Democracy Institute poll revealed a considerable portion of Israeli Jewish respondents, 44.8%, do not trust, or have little trust, Clinton would block attempts to attack or isolate Israel. Viewed alongside Trump’s victory in Israel, these numbers suggest a bumpy ride ahead for Israeli-American relations in the likely Clinton administration. Clinton’s gratification of the pro-Israel lobby during her campaign, positioning herself as a great friend of Israel, does not provide a comprehensive prediction of her policy. The reality is that what is said on the campaign trail does not always match what is done in the Oval Office.

A more accurate predictor of what lies ahead for a Clinton administration is whether Obama will address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict again before leaving office. Jonathan Schanzer, a White House insider, told the Wall Street Journal “there are about six options right now that the President is considering, from recognizing a Palestinian state to a UN Security Council resolution that details parameters for the peace process,” as well as “barring organizations that support settlements through IRS regulation.” To the extent that any of these options materialize, a Clinton administration’s policy on Israel would be defined by them more so than her public relations BDS letter to one mega-donor. The Podesta e-mail dump is relevant here, which has revealed a considerable degree of unease at the Clinton camp when it comes to dealing with Israel. An Israel-Palestine talking points document prepared in October 2015 aptly captures the candidate’s team teetering the line, if not dodging questions altogether, in an effort to avert confrontation with Israel while trying to keep it on a leash. “Do not put blame on the Israelis for settlements or excessive use of force. But also avoid implying that you are giving them a carte blanche to pursue those policies – especially on settlements,” reads one point. Email exchanges also revealed that Clinton’s condemnation of BDS was designed to counter negative reactions by the pro-Israel lobby over her support of the Iran deal. It remains to be seen whether this aversion will be translated into a comprehensive policy.