On November 9, 2016, on about three hours of sleep, I wandered shocked and unkempt out to my Jerusalem neighborhood, where other residents were going about their day unaware an election had taken place, and fairly disinterested.
Clinton lost? Donald who?
Israelis are devoted fans of the United States, but don’t usually focus on the details.
How things change. On Wednesday, a local radio station popular with cabbies and football fans devoted the full day to a minute-by-minute stream of micro-factoids emanating from places as remote as rural Wisconsin.
This year, a kiosk owner making early-morning takeaway espressos kept the radio turned on, her clients leaning in to listen.
This is not normal, as we’ve taken to saying in 2020. It also doesn’t appear related to Trump’s perceived popularity among Israelis, but to a much deeper concern.
“I’m so nervous, it’s worse than when we have elections here,” Shelly Yachimovich, former chair of the Israeli Labor Party, said on the air on Wednesday, “I’m more stressed out than when I myself was a candidate.”
Yachimovich, not a fan of Donald Trump’s, found it impossible to explain the magnitude of her angst, vaguely mentioning her preference for Biden because of his support for LGBTQ rights and his generally sterling liberal credentials.
Lacking a vote, but feeling their lives depend on it, citizens of the global village have trained their eyes on United States like children staring at a door, waiting for their parents to return.
None, perhaps, more than Israelis.
“Few countries have been as invested in Donald Trump’s presidency as Israel,” Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote hours before the polls closed, running through the long list of the “rhetorical or symbolic” favors Trump bestowed upon his ally Benjamin Netanyahu.
They include recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the State Department’s recent (and hollow) declaration that the “establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.”
But even these Trumpian gestures don’t explain why Israeli stomachs are in a knot.
The reason they can’t take their eyes off America is the emerging answer to the question “are you back?” No matter who wins in the coming days, hours or weeks, the answer appears to be “no,” or at best, “it’s complicated.”
For much of the world, not only for Israelis, the fact that the United States election has wound its way to an angry Trump ranting about a stolen victory sounds like an era ending.
This was poignantly described by another observer, the Argentine political analyst Carlos Pérez Llana.
Speaking on a Buenos Aires radio station, where locals were just as rivetted by details of the distant election, Pérez Llana said the 2020 vote provided hope that “the United States would return to the world, and the Trump thing was an episode.”
“We have to forget about it,” he said. “Trump isn’t just an episode, and the United States that one knew, and hoped would return to the world, isn’t this United States… the world will have to get used to the absence of that United States, with everything it implies.”
As far back as 2017 German Chancellor Angela Merkel realized that Europe needed to manage its own affairs without the United States.
However tickled they may be about Trump, Israelis know no other country needs a strong, stable and respected United States like they do. Israel cannot go it alone.
Netanyahu’s former National Security Advisor, General Yaakov Amidror, a pillar of Israel’s right-wing security establishment, bluntly told me that Israel’s top military and diplomatic asset is its relationship with the United States — not its massive arsenal, not its soldiers, not its storied tech sector or its new links to the Persian Gulf emirates.
“It is not good for Israel if in this region, its top ally is perceived to be weak or unstable,” he said in an August interview, at the time the Israeli-U.A.E normalization agreement was announced.
“Nothing compares to that relationship.”
Israelis may indulge Trump, but they see through opportunism and fickleness. They know that the United States embassy continues to work out of Tel Aviv. That the Golan’s ‘Trump Heights’ was a conceit dreamed up in Netanyahu’s giddy sycophancy. Israelis have a sense that the United States under Trump has become a wobbly, preening friend.
Even the number one Israeli knows this. Netanyahu has no worse nightmare than a cocksure, untethered Trump, to whom he has attached himself at the hip. Netanyahu’s aura of invincibility would be tarnished by a Trump loss, but devastated by a second term Trump flying to Tehran to sign a bigger, better deal.
Netanyahu’s awareness of America losing the ineffable qualities that have defined America in the Israeli consciousness may, in fact, be one reason Netanyahu gave up the West Bank annexation he promised his base in exchange for an Emirati embassy in Tel Aviv.
“No one wants weak allies,” a senior Israeli official told journalists in an August off-the-record briefing. “Israel is in this region. We’re not going to become neo-isolationists or pivot to Asia.”
The subtext: Israel needs new, powerful friends.
Trump who? Israelis are less attached to Trump than you think