Right wing Israel Hayom declared that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “claimed victory” in last night’s presidential debate. Left wing Haaretz said that Hillary scored points last night, though her performance fell short of a “knockout.”
Across the political spectrum, Israel’s media heavily covered the first U.S. presidential debate, even though only the most die-hard political observers watched the debate in real time. The debate kicked off at 4 AM Israel time, when most were still asleep.
Israeli media took note of Trump’s criticism of Clinton for the role she played in preparing talks over the nuclear deal with Iran, as well as Clinton’s justification of the deal. Trump referenced his recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that Netanyahu was not a “happy camper” when it came to the deal.
By contrast, this exchange didn’t make it into the New York Times’ lead report on the debate.
According to Israeli media observers, there was a broad consensus in the Israeli press that Clinton won. The exception was Israel Hayom, which is funded by the right-wing American casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson. He is also a donor to the Trump campaign, reportedly giving $25 million to a pro-Trump super PAC, an indication that he has warmed to the candidate after his initial donation of just $5 million.
During the debate, Trump repeatedly interrupted Clinton. She upbraided him for stumbling over facts. But Israel Hayom’s online report downplayed the differences in style between the candidates, noting that they “attacked each other relentlessly” and demonstrated “mostly scorn and contempt” for one another. Another Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, had a different take in its online report, writing that Clinton showed “mastery and control” while Trump “shot from the hip.”
According to Oren Persico, a journalist with the media watchdog site The Seventh Eye, Israel Hayom has propped up Trump even when he was falling the polls, such as after he attacked a Muslim American family whose son, a U.S. soldier, was killed in Iraq.
“In Donald Trump’s most disastrous weeks, in Israel Hayom you could see anti-Clinton reports and commentary that not all is lost and he still has hope, if he does A, B or C he could still be the president.”
Although the free Israel Hayom is Israel’s largest circulation paper, it is unclear whether its sympathetic take on Trump has affected Israeli public opinion on the U.S. election.
Most other media in Israel portray Clinton more favorably, noted Persico. “The major Israeli media — Channel 2, Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv — think Trump is a weird maniac and Clinton is much more presidential.”
An early September poll revealed that 43% of Israeli Jews want Clinton as president, compared with 34% who prefer Trump. Paradoxically, 38% believe that Trump would actually be better for Israel, compared with 33% who think Clinton would be.
The poll was conducted before Netanyahu met with both candidates.
Just like the U.S. media, Israeli outlets were promoting the first debate as potentially decisive event in the U.S. election. Yedioth Ahronoth’s online news application hyped the debate as “90 minutes of trash-talking: Clinton and Trump in a debate the world has never seen.”
“They played it as a major event which could make or break the election,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, head of the national security and public opinion project at the Institute for National Security Studies, saying that the Israeli news had an “exaggerated buildup of the debates.”
Israeli media always covers the U.S. elections, but this year’s coverage is more vigorous than usual, said media analysts. One reason is that Trump is unlike any other candidate Israelis have seen. Trump’s bombast has drummed up interest in his campaign.
Shmuel Sandler, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, posited that Israelis are watching more closely because they are ready for a change in the White House. Israeli public opinion is broadly critical of U.S. President Barack Obama on his Middle East policy, even as he just signed the biggest military aid package to Israel in history.
“After eight years of Obama, people want to see someone new,” said Sandler.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.