The 2016 Election Season: the View from Jerusalem

Viewpoints, April 2016

Eytan Gilboa

Even at their primary stage, The United States presidential elections receive widespread attention in Israel, more perhaps than in any other country in the Western world. Coverage of each primary in the Israeli media is extensive, as the public seeks out details about candidates from each party. Particularly, Israelis want to know who the key players are, where they come from and what they think about Israel and the Middle East. Reports, commentary, special supplements and direct live coverage appear in the Israeli media on a daily basis, quenching the public’s thirst for knowledge about key developments.

 Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Frontrunner candidates Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump continue to receive preferential coverage. As First Lady in her husband’s Administration, Senator from New York and later, Secretary of State during President Obama’s first term, Clinton has a long history of service at the highest levels of Washington politics. Meanwhile, Republican Donald Trump is mostly known to Israelis through the popular reality television show—The Apprentice, rather than from his extensive business ventures around the world. The other candidates, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Texas Republican Ted Cruz, have received meager coverage in Israel.

“At a time of diplomatic uncertainty, Israeli voters seek a president who will mend relations, damaged during the Obama tenure.”

Israelis’ enormous interest in the presidential elections stems from the “special relationship” between the US and Israel: Israel depends on the US for political, diplomatic and economic support. In the diplomatic sphere, Israel frequently relies on Washington to block anti-Israeli resolutions in the UN and in its affiliate organizations. Furthermore, Israel receives approximately $3 billion in US funds annually, mostly in order to purchase weapons from the US. In return, and based on actual battle experience, Israel provides Washington with ideas on how to correct malfunctions and improve the performance of new weapons systems, develops valuable military technology (such as missile defense systems and border surveillance technology) and shares highly valuable intelligence and proven doctrines. Finally, about 200,000 American citizens of both Democratic and Republican affiliation live in Israel, many of whom still vote on US Election Day.

In recent years, US-Israel relations have been marred by serious disagreements, as Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu found himself at loggerheads with Obama over the Iranian Nuclear deal and Israeli-Palestinian relations. During the previous US elections, Netanyahu angered Obama when he appeared to intervene in favor of then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and again in March of last year, when he addressed Congress and spoke against the Iran nuclear deal, despite the White House’s adamant objection. Thus, the identity of the next US president is crucial for Israel, as many wonder which candidate will best be able to repair damaged relations between the two allies and restore American leadership and credibility in the Middle East.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa has held several senior academic positions at Bar-Ilan University and currently is Chair and Academic Director of the Israel Public Diplomacy Forum.