Biden Arrives to an Israel More Skeptical of America's Leadership

Polls still show Israelis look favorably on the United States, but some of the shine has dulled amid culture wars and growing American isolationism

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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A worker ironing an American flag as part of the preparations for U.S. President Joe Biden's visit later this week, inside the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on Monday.
A worker ironing an American flag as part of the preparations for U.S. President Joe Biden's visit later this week, inside the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on Monday.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

U.S. President Joe Biden arrives in Israel at a time when official relations between the two countries are at their steadiest in years. But beneath the surface, observers say many Israelis are having doubts about America as a role model for their own society, and its reliability as the guardian of security and order in the Middle East.

During his time as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu frequently clashed with U.S. President Barack Obama over settlements and Iran, going so far as to address the U.S. Congress in defiance of the White House in an attempt to block the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran. Netanyahu then did an about-face, forming a political bromance with President Donald Trump, whom he saw as an uncompromising champion of Israel.

A worker checking a red carpet as part of the preparations for U.S. President Joe Biden's visit later this week, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

With Biden in the White House and Naftali Bennett and now Yair Lapid as Israeli prime minister, bilateral relations have “normalized” again. Even the two countries’ disagreements over Iran have been kept low-key, and Israeli leaders have sought to restore bipartisan support in Congress after years of Netanyahu openly favoring Republicans.

But observers of the America-Israel scene say that above and beyond the two countries’ strategic relations, ordinary Israelis have begun looking at the United States with less admiration and confidence than in the past.

America’s bitter culture wars, endemic gun violence and even the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of abortion rights previously guaranteed by Roe v. Wade have left many Israelis with a more jaundiced view of the United States, they say. Those doubts have been exacerbated by major policy missteps – most prominently 2008-2009’s Great Recession, the coronavirus pandemic and last summer’s Afghanistan withdrawal.

“Israelis have a bit of an inferiority complex – anything from overseas must be better: America is best, and Britain and the other English-speaking countries follow,” says Prof. Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. “There’s no doubt that in recent times that’s been eroded. America was associated with good governance and efficiency. But from the center right across to the left, Israelis have been very affected by the damage done to U.S. democracy.”

Dahlia Scheindlin, a political scientist and public opinion expert, and a policy fellow at the Century Foundation, says the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe last month made America look “primitive” in the eyes of many Israelis. “I think the gun violence makes them think America is meshuga.

“I think there’s a more critical understanding of America, which we see in how the news is reported and how people discuss it – there are people asking questions about whether America is the standard for democracies,” she adds.

That said, both analysts agree that Israeli doubts about America haven’t tipped over into outright negative feelings. Whether it’s Hollywood movies, Silicon Valley companies that provide popular services like Twitter and WhatsApp, or the simple bigness and brashness of American society, the U.S.’ soft power continues to hold sway in Israel.

“Israelis are well versed in [Bob] Dylan and the late-night shows, the best places to eat in New York and who will win the congressional election in Nebraska’s 12th District,” Ofer Shelah, a journalist and former lawmaker, wrote in a Ynet op-ed last year. “This stems, I suppose, first of all from our Holocaust fears, which are existential. In our consciousness, in a hostile world … America is our powerful friend, our cowboy, without whom who knows what could happen.”

In a poll released last month by the Washington-based Pew Research Center examining international public opinion about the United States, 83 percent of Israelis held a favorable view – the second highest among the 17 countries included in the survey, and far above the average of 61 percent.

Moreover, Israelis’ opinion of America has remained pretty consistent over the years, no matter who was occupying the White House or what scraps the two countries were engaged in: Since 2003, the percentage of Israelis holding a favorable opinion of the United States has never fallen below 71 percent.

That low came in 2009, when Obama and Netanyahu were clashing over settlements and America was struggling with its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But by 2014, with Obama still in power, favorable views of America in Israel reached a high of 84 percent – a figure never exceeded in the Trump years.

Then-leaders President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, January 2020.Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP

‘Innocents in the Mideast’

What has changed significantly, according to more detailed poll results Pew released Monday on the eve of the Biden visit, is that the share of Israelis holding very favorable views of the United States has dropped sharply – to 31 percent this year, down from 40 percent in 2019.

As a Democrat, and one who served under Obama, Biden has a chip on his shoulder in the eyes of at least some of the Israeli public. He represents the Democratic center and his foreign policy opposes Trump’s isolationism. But many Israelis remain skeptical about him, especially in regard to the administration’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear accord.

“They think the Democrats are naive or even incompetent innocents in the Middle East,” Scheindlin says. “From the center to the right, there’s a widespread attitude in Israel that the Middle East is a Hobbesian world of primitive people lacking idealism, who don’t understand democracy and don’t believe in diplomacy but only understand might – and that America doesn’t understand that.”

Even though 60 percent of Israelis expressed confidence in Biden as president (about the same as the average of 17 countries), the rates were generally higher for Trump in his final years – even though many in the Israeli policy establishment had doubts about Trump’s commitment to defending Israeli interests in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s relentless partisanism has found its way into Israeli public opinion.

“Following Netanyahu’s theme, the idea has become more widespread that in America progressive Democrats are bad for Israel, anti-Israel and even antisemitic,” Scheindlin says. “That attitude is trickling down: that Americans love us, but there are anti-Israel activists on the left who have convinced the left that Israel is bad.”

Israeli worries about America’s domestic political scene go beyond the left wing of the Democratic Party. There is a sense among many that America is becoming so divided against itself that its ability to lead the Free World, much less an international order, is at risk.

“It’s not only American soft power and a model that we look to to improve our country,” Rynhold says. “If America is fighting with itself, then what does that mean for its role in the Middle East? How much bandwidth will there be to act? There’s a concern that the democracy crisis in the United States and deterioration of democratic norms will affect America’s standing as a global power,” he adds.

A poll released Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 54 percent of Israelis had no confidence or not much confidence in Biden to take into account Israeli interests in making relevant foreign policy decisions. Only 37 percent said they had a lot or quite a lot of confidence.

Trust in Biden was much lower among right-wing and religious voters than among those in the center and left, according to the institute. It was also much lower among Israeli Jews than Israeli Arabs.

Barack Obama, then the Democratic presidential contender, with Israel's then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak during a meeting at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, July 2008.Credit: ELIANA APONTE / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Strengthening Arab ties

Despite ex-Yesh Atid lawmaker Shelah’s observation that Israelis regard America as the country’s ultimate guarantor, Israel has to a degree grown less reliant on the United States over the last three decades.

Even as he embraced the Republican Party, Netanyahu sought to broaden Israel’s diplomatic and trade ties in order to reduce Israeli reliance on the United States and Western Europe, whom he regarded as unreliable partners.

The Netanyahu strategy meant building stronger ties with China and India, the “illiberal democracies” of Eastern Europe and an array of African countries. Perhaps most important of all, the Abraham Accords have strengthened Israeli ties with the Arab world immeasurably, at a time when Washington is seeking to disengage from the Middle East.

Meanwhile, thanks mainly to the rise of China as an economic power, America’s share of Israel’s international trade has diminished. Last year, the United States accounted for 23 percent of all Israeli merchandise exports and 9 percent of its imports. That made it Israel’s single biggest export market and second-largest source of imports (after China). However, in 2011, the figures were 29 percent and 12 percent, respectively.

U.S. aid to Israel has held steady over the last decade at between $3.5 billion to $4 billion annually. But the Israeli economy has grown so much that its contribution has shrunk from about 10 percent of GDP in the 1980s to about 1 percent today. Losing U.S. aid would make it harder for the treasury to balance the budget, but it wouldn’t constitute a serious blow to the Israeli economy.

“One thing [Netanyahu] did well was building up Israel’s relations around the world. Israel has far more embassies and trade relations than it did, say, in 1991,” says Prof. Paul Scham, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. “Israel is less dependent on the United States, which is good for Israel in most ways as the U.S. is pivoting to Asia.”

But analysts say looser economic ties don’t amount to a fundamental change. Israel remains heavily reliant on American arms and for its support in the UN Security Council. Even if Israel is able to conduct the increasingly important cyberwarfare front largely on its own, its air force remains reliant on U.S. warplanes and Israel’s development of advanced missile defenses depends on U.S. financial aid.

Israel’s high-tech sector is as heavily tied to America as ever. Most of the money invested in Israeli startups comes from the United States, and last year U.S. companies acquired 60 percent of Israeli tech companies that were sold. China, which had once been seen as a major competitor, has faded into the background.

“Yes, Israel is more independent than it was, but it is very far from being able to do what it likes and ignore the Americans. That would be a huge error,” Rynhold warns.

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