"Trump was sent to us by God," said Michael Yigal Mimon, a former intelligence officer in the Israeli army who proudly counts himself among a growing number of Donald Trump supporters in Israel.
Like the United States, Mimon said, Israel longs for a return to a “purist” conservative politics – one characterized by individualism, strong national defense policies, and the conviction that Israel is a key buffer against a “Muslim takeover” in the West.
“Obama decided to destroy America’s credibility in order to help his Muslim friends, but now we are witnessing a rebellion of the masses, people who feel they are being dominated or shut up by the radical left elite,” said Mimon. And though Trump has not revealed his strategy for the Middle East, he added, he has expressed a “healthy fear of Islam.”
61% of Israelis see Trump as “moderately” or “very” friendly to Israel, according to an Israel Democracy Institute study released this month. 34% said that a Republican candidate would be pro-Israel, as opposed to 28% who said the same about a Democratic candidate.
“People in Israel, given the choice of the wild card Trump or the known quantity of Hillary Clinton, would choose Trump,” said Abe Katsman, an American immigrant to Israel who works with Republicans Abroad Israel. While Bill Clinton had a favorable reputation in Israel, he said, Hillary is seen as responsible for Obama’s unpopular policies.
Israelis have a more negative view of Obama than most people around the world, according to a WIN/Gallup poll conducted last year. Of the 65 countries surveyed, only four had a dimmer view of Obama than Israel. Even Iranians held Obama in slightly higher regard, giving him a net favorability score of -21%, compared to Israel’s -22%.
Israelis who support Trump claim that Obama has turned his back on the war on terror, leaving a power vacuum that has bred an emboldened Iran, a tumultuous Syria and Iraq, and a wave of radicalism throughout Israel’s Arab neighbors. And they decry what they see as America’s lack of support for Israel during the “knife intifada” – the wave of attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers over the past six months, largely carried out by young Palestinians.
Trump’s campaign coincides with a period of growing political polarization among Jewish Israelis, as the far-right grows in popularity due to the ongoing attacks. His brash colloquial style and “chutzpah” resonate with an Israeli public, said Nimrod Zuta, a 24-year-old security guard and activist with the youth department of Netanyahu’s Likud party who manages a Facebook page for Israeli Trump supporters.
But while Trump has said he would “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State, he has said little about his foreign policy plans for Israel -- only that he would be “neutral” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Zuta is not worried. “I believe that [Trump] will take a ‘live and let live’ policy in regard to our expansion in Judea and Samaria,” said Zuta, referring to the biblical name for the disputed territory where increasing Jewish presence has been condemned by Obama and the international community -- but which 42% of Jewish Israelis believe is crucial to Israel’s security, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
Trump’s Israeli critics fear him for the same reasons his followers love him: he is impulsive and liable to turn the political landscape on its head. Many find his rhetoric unnerving, regardless of the target group. “When we hear him talk about the Syrian refugee crisis, who to the Jews of Israel represent a mirror image to our own grandparents fleeing war, we can't accept it,” said Tal Schneider, a political commentator.
Some in the Israeli right-wing establishment, too, are unnerved by Trump's penchant for provocation and “borderline racism,” Likud party member Amir Witeman said. “We do distinguish between his seeing foreigners, like Chinese or Mexicans, as the enemy -- which makes us very uncomfortable -- and [Trump’s] stance against immigrants from the Middle East, who are potential extremists who can, like in Cologne on New Year’s, bring violence into the countries,” he said, referring to the sexual assaults reported outside Cologne, Germany’s central train station on New Year’s eve. Police initially said the perpetrators were of North African descent, though German newspaper Welt am Sonntag later reported that police had determined many of them were Syrian refugees.
Israel’s most widely-read newspaper, Israel Hayom, backed by American GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, is already throwing its weight behind Trump. The conservative tabloid ran multiple front page stories this week touting Trump’s victories and presenting him as a friend of Israel.
“My win is great news for Israel,” Trump told Boaz Bismuth, the paper’s foreign editor who is currently covering Trump in Florda. “Your friend is leading the primaries. I’ve always been your friend, even in the most difficult moments, and that’s not about to change.”
It doesn’t hurt that Trump’s daughter Ivanka converted to Orthodox Judaism before marrying real estate mogul Jared Kushner. “Trump is better than a Jew because he doesn’t have any of the complexes of Jewish guilt,” said Andrew Hamilton, an Australian immigrant to Israel and Jewish convert. “Ironically enough, a White Anglo Saxon Protestant with Jewish grandchildren is doing the most to protect the future of the Jewish people.”
Rubin is a special correspondent.