Trump Supporters Hope to Win Israel by Getting Out the West Bank Vote

Opening a campaign office for a U.S. presidential candidate in a West Bank settlement is unprecedented, and the people campaigning for Trump in Israel did not intend for this clear nod to go unnoticed.

Trump supporters in the campaign office in the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shimron, September 15, 2016.
David Bachar

Israel’s political leaders are not exactly famous for their ability to keep their opinions to themselves. Even when it comes to other countries’ politics, they have at times been a lot more outspoken than they should have been.

Perhaps owing in part to the bitter experience of betting big on Mitt Romney in 2012, when it comes to the issue of Trump vs. Clinton it seems that mum’s the word.

But while Netanyahu and the rest of the right wing’s leaders have been judiciously keeping their opinions of Trump and Clinton to themselves so far, some of their supporters on the Israeli right are actively working for Trump to win by going after the country's 200,000-plus eligible American votes.

As Judy Maltz revealed in Haaretz last week, among the key figures running Trump’s campaign in Israel and the West Bank are stalwarts of the right wing. Tzvika Brot, the director of the Israeli campaign, is a former journalist with close ties to Likud who was offered the job of director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office last year by Netanyahu (he ended up turning it down).

Other officials in the Israeli campaign for Trump’s election have ties to the right-wing party Habayit Hayehudi and the far-right movement Im Tirtzu.

The campaign (which according to a Reuters report has no official ties to the Trump campaign or the Republican National Committee, even though it maintains “close coordination” with both) has in recent weeks opened not one, not two, but four offices in the Holy Land. This week it opened one in the settlement of Karnei Shomron in the West Bank.

Opening a campaign office for a U.S. presidential candidate in a West Bank settlement is unprecedented, and the people campaigning for Trump in Israel did not intend for this clear nod to go unnoticed.

Yossi Dagan, a prominent settler leader who also heads the Samaria Regional Council, was the guest of honor at the launch party. Two right-wing Knesset members were also supposed to be in attendance, but bailed at the last minute after being told to do so by their parties’ leaders.

Trump's campaign office, the first-ever such office for an American candidate in the West Bank, in  the settlement of Karnei Shomron, on Sept. 5, 2016.
David Bachar

While he stopped short of an outright endorsement of Trump, Maltz noted in her report that Dagan “did not make any attempt to hide where his sympathies lie.”

Trump’s supporters, however, made sure to signal just how amenable Trump might be to the settler cause.

“[Trump] doesn’t want to dictate any kind of solution,” Mark Zell, an American-born lawyer and chair of Republican Overseas Israel, told Maltz. Trump, Zell added, doesn’t come with “any particular solution” or “pre-fabricated answers.” He’s “open to listening.”

Chasing absentee voters

The pro-Trump campaign in Israel is substantial — especially compared to Clinton's more modest efforts to go after American voters in Israel. There’s a reason why Trump is chasing Israel’s absentee votes with the tenacity of an overzealous Pokemon hunter: He and his local supporters believe he can “catch ‘em all” or, well, something close to it. Romney won 85 percent of the Israeli vote in 2012, according to one exit poll. John McCain in 2008 had similar numbers.

The Israeli Trump campaign estimates that there are 300,000 eligible American voters in Israel (other estimations put the number at 200,000, many of them right wing; of them, some 60,000 reside in the West Bank).

A May poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 62 percent of Israeli Jews believe Trump will be committed to safeguarding the security of the Jewish state if elected as president. Granted, the same poll showed that 40 percent of Israeli Jews think Hillary Clinton would be better for Israel, in contrast to only 31 percent saying that about Trump; the survey didn’t specify how many of its respondents were eligible to vote in the U.S. elections. In any event, there are other signs that at least in traditionally liberal bastions like Tel Aviv, Trump faces something of an uphill climb.

Based on officials’ statements, it seems that the Trump campaign believes the absentee votes could help tip swing states like Florida in their favor. Also, being really, really pro-Israel has never hurt a Republican candidate’s chances with the evangelical crowd. At this point, much of Trump’s success hinges on his ability to get out the right-wing vote.

A matter of cultural affinity?

Though the political ties of the Trump campaign in Israel are telling, the Israeli right's support for Trump is far from self-evident. For a significant part of the campaign season, Clinton has stood to the right of Trump when it came to Israel. Unlike him, the Democratic nominee never promised to be “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians. Clinton’s support of Israel is so impeccable that even Israeli right-wingers would be hard pressed to accuse her of anti-Semitism. Back when Trump was flirting with playing a neutral role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and suggested that Israel should pay the U.S. for military aid, Clinton promised to invite Netanyahu to the White House during her first month in office. Thus, when it comes to their views on Israel, Clinton, Trump (and Netanyahu) have sometimes been downright indistinguishable.

Yet there are two possible reasons why the Israeli right-wing might prefer Trump to Clinton. One is that Trump is less likely to pressure Israel to do anything it doesn’t want to do. Not just because of his America First agenda, but also because he doesn’t seem to have a great interest in foreign policy, especially the murky waters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clinton, on the other hand, might feel the need to be more active. After all, as secretary of state she did pressure Netanyahu into peace talks and criticized him on settlement construction. Plus, her husband — who’s expected to have some role in her administration — was one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, much-hated by a significant share of Israel’s population.

More importantly, perhaps, the Israeli right-wing loathes Barack Obama and his signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, and besides the fact that Clinton served as his secretary of state for four years, she is also positioning herself as his successor in many regards. (Though on Israel she has done pretty much everything she could to distance herself from the uncomfortable White House legacy of the last eight years).

Trump has said some harsh things about the Iran deal, claiming it is a “bad deal’ that has made Iran into a “world power” and would eventually destroy Israel. Doing so, he echoed much of the rhetoric previously used by Netanyahu and the Israeli right.

The other answer to the question why the Israeli right wing might prefer Trump is simple cultural affinity. In his statements and agenda, the nominee has often echoed, or downright mimicked, previous statements made by key figures among that right wing. He relies on a similar strategy to the one that allowed the Israel’s far-right to take over national politics in recent years: of merging xenophobic fears with economic populism and leveraging racism as a form of anti-establishment credential. They probably recognize much of themselves in him.

And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what Trump is counting on.