JANUARY 11, 2018 – It’s no secret that Jews living in Israel tend to view President Donald Trump in a more positive light than do Jews living in the United States – not necessarily for the way he behaves or runs his administration, but for the way he seems to be a backer of the Jewish state.
The level of Trump’s perceived support for Israel by Jewish Israelis has varied since his inauguration.
Among a representative sample of 500 Israeli adults, both Jewish and non-Jewish, a Smith Research poll conducted late last January found that 79 percent of the Jewish respondents believed he was pro-Israel. Another Smith poll taken shortly before the president’s May 2017 visit to Israel showed that this belief had dropped to 56 percent, while a post-visit poll found a slight rise, to 61 percent.
The visit had included the first sojourn to the Western Wall by a sitting US president, a fact not lost on people here. Yet observers feel his post-visit popularity among Jewish Israelis would have been even higher had he agreed to be accompanied to the Wall by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an idea overruled by Trump advisers who felt that just a few solo minutes at such a hotly-contested site had the potential for enough controversy.
Trump’s general popularity among Israelis originally seemed to have a lot to do with his campaign promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem based on Congress’s October 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act. The act features a waiver that can be signed by the president every six months if it is felt that the move might harm national security.
Despite similar campaign promises, every president from Bill Clinton through George W. Bush to Barack Obama signed the waiver like clockwork. Trump noted this on the stump and promised that with him, it would be different. In fact, he was quoted as saying he’d move the embassy on “day one” of his presidency. Yet in June, when he faced his first waiver, he, too, caved.
Trump’s next encounter with the waiver came last month, on December 7. Despite indications from some White House insiders that he might come through, he signed again. But he also did something that no one really expected: He broke with almost 70 years of US foreign policy and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, adding that despite having signed the waiver, he was ordering the State Department to begin planning the embassy move.
The result was something close to euphoria for all but the most left-wing of Israel’s Jewish political spectrum, and a December 13 Smith poll showed that the proportion of Jewish Israelis who believed that Trump was pro-Israel had shot to 77 percent, just two percentage points shy of his post-inaugural showing.
The poll also found that close to 70 percent of Arab Israeli adults agreed – although no one had any illusions that they were happy about it.
In the heady days following Trump’s declaration, one senior member of the ruling Likud party, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, found his footing.
Katz, 62, has been something of a bulldozer in getting major transportation projects up and running in a country where infrastructure has long been almost an afterthought. He also considers himself Netanyahu’s logical successor (although for reasons known mostly to himself – he’s awkward and wooden, and even after losing a lot of weight following bariatric stomach surgery, he still comes across as something of a lumbering rube when compared to some of his younger, smoother-talking and better-tailored and -coiffed Likud rivals).
So perhaps to keep himself in the news, he pulled a Trump of his own: He loudly announced plans to extend a high-speed Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line slated to begin operations sometime this year and bring it underground to its final stop beneath Jerusalem’s Old City, close to the Western Wall.
“The Western Wall is the holiest place for the Jewish people,” he stated, “and I decided to name the train station that leads to it after President Trump following his historic and brave decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.”
To be sure, this raised more than a few eyebrows.
The high-speed rail line, which will include a stop at Ben-Gurion Airport, involves numerous bridges and tunnels on its hilly way up to Jerusalem, as well as a main station deep beneath the ground just inside the entrance to the city. The project has long been plagued by delays; to add a few more underground miles might not seem like much, but beneath the surface of an archeologically sensitive city, an extension won’t happen too soon, perhaps not for another five years.
And it would cost an additional $750 million at the very least. The overall rail project has run well over its original budget, and people were heard to wonder whether the extension would be worth all the extra money and dust. After all, Jerusalem already has a relatively successful light rail system up and running, with stops outside the site of the main high-speed train station and within easy walking distance to several gates to the Old City.
One political wag was heard to wonder whether the minister really thought that so many people, rumpled and bleary-eyed from 10-hour flights, would want to go straight from the airport to the Western Wall.
In a way, the borderline silliness of Katz’s plan brought many Israelis back to earth, and they began to wonder out loud just how much Trump’s declaration would go beyond merely making them feel a bit more loved. After all, the US president says one thing one day and another thing the next. And considering his low popularity ratings at home, there’s no certainty as to how long he’ll be around and who might come next – and whether that person will undo everything Trump did by signing a simple executive order with a telegenic flourish.
The most recent Smith Research poll asked how Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem would affect peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Fully 76 percent of the Arab respondents gave it a thumbs-down. The response among Jews was mixed: 33 percent said it would be harmful, 36 percent said it would have no impact and 23 percent said it would actually improve the chances for a peace accord.
Most in the last group were supporters of the far-right Bayit Yehudi party, which sits in Netanyahu’s coalition and strongly favors annexation of most or even all of the West Bank, including its approximately 2.5 million Palestinians. Quite tellingly, this shows where the core of Trump’s Israeli support lies.
Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist.