JERUSALEM – There is a widespread misconception that Donald Trump is the most popular ever U.S. president among Israelis. And the bromance between Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embellishes this perception. However, a quick look at the archives of the authoritative Washington-based fact tank, the Pew Research Center, shows this not to be accurate.
Over the past two decades, the highest rated U.S. president among Israelis was George W. Bush whose rating stood at 83% as he invaded Iraq in 2003. Trump’s marks (69%) are lower than Barack Obama’s peak favorability (71% in 2014), before the latter clashed with Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear deal.
Despite not reaching Bush’s popularity levels, Trump’s blatantly pro-Israel gestures, peaking in his decision to overturn 70 years of U.S. policy and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and also his imposition of sanctions on Iran, have persuaded a majority of Israelis to enthusiastically express their admiration for him, even those on the left of the political spectrum who would normally be antagonistic. Moreover, as the Israeli left shrinks, voters on the burgeoning right express blanket support for him.
“Israelis see Trump as the ‘great white hope’, who will not only save the U.S., but will also defend Israel’s majority that yearns for a return to all our God-given land,” former San Franciscan Fred Moncharsh, a member of the central committee of Netanyahu’s Likud party, tells The Jewish Journal.
Then there’s the mutual admiration society between Netanyahu and Trump. While Netanyahu was still trying to cobble together a coalition after the April election, Trump tweeted: “Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation and Bibi [Netanyahu] and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever.”
And Netanyahu’s going to need all the help he can get following his abortive attempt to form a coalition after the election, which he had engineered ahead of the scheduled date to stave off looming indictment proceedings for graft. There are signs that Netanyahu’s position is weakening even within his own party and he indeed might not be the one to voted in to head the next government coalition.
Trump went out of his way to help Netanyahu before the election: he authorized U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, still considered occupied Syrian territory by the rest of the world. Netanyahu flew to Washington to receive Trump’s sovereignty gesture; Trump’s predecessor, Obama, had scrupulously avoided meeting Netanyahu ahead of the previous Israeli election.
We now wait to see what ace Trump pulls out of his sleeve to help Netanyahu ahead of the second general election this year on September 17.
There is an enthralling synergy between the two. The neophyte, bumbling, barely articulate head of the most powerful nation in the world could learn much from the veteran politician, who, for over 13 years, though being at the helm of a small Middle Eastern country, has had disproportionate weight in world affairs.
Netanyahu has served as a sort of bridge between Trump and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu had five successful meetings with Trump in two years, and 13 equally successful meetings with Putin in the past four years.
Supremely suave and compellingly fluent in two languages, Netanyahu gives master classes in right-wing populism, and he has gleefully embraced Trump’s disdain for so-called “fake news.” They both share a contempt for the law, especially when they are the targets.
They are both darlings of evangelical Christians, who at the same time are a powerful support base for Trump and who have become Israel’s biggest support base in American politics: 65% of evangelicals want the U.S. to lean toward Israel compared with 26% for the rest of the population. They both receive significant support from U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson, whose deep pockets fund the pro-Bibi newspaper Yisrael Hayom, which is totally dedicated to maintaining Netanyahu in power.
In addition, as University of Maryland polls have shown, Republicans love Netanyahu. In fact, during the 2015-2016 presidential primaries, his name was invoked in the Republican debates more than that of any other world leader, and, Netanyahu tied Ronald Reagan as the most admired leader among Republicans – even surpassing Reagan among evangelical Republicans.
In several European nations, Trump receives higher ratings from supporters of right-wing populist parties than from America’s traditional allies. Netanyahu was also doing quite well cultivating the Visegrad Group, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, which are considered to be the most nationalist and right-wing countries in the European Union, A Visegrad summit was due to be held in Israel in February. However, Netanyahu’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Israel Katz managed to upset Poland by accusing them of collaborating with the Nazis and the summit was cancelled.
Pew’s survey of America’s global image among 25 nations, including all of the its leading European allies, shows Trump’s international approval rating plummeting amid widespread opposition to his administration’s policies and lack of confidence in his leadership.
The poll recorded historically low support for Trump among key allies including Britain, where only 28% of respondents said they had confidence in the U.S. president, Canada (25%), and France and Germany where Trump’s confidence ratings stood below 10%.
But Israel stood out as an exception, where Trump’s popularity jumped to 69%, up from 56% in 2017 on the heels of a number of pro-Israel policy moves including the transfer of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Pew’s pollsters found that large majorities of the international public express concern about the U.S. role in world affairs and feel that the U.S. doesn’t take into account their countries’ interests when making foreign policy decisions.
Israelis, by contrast, are “more likely than any other public surveyed to say the U.S. is doing more to address global problems than a few years ago” and Israel “tops the list in terms of the share of the public – 79 percent – saying that relations with the U.S. have improved during Trump’s term.”
Avi Hoffman writes from Jerusalem.