Israeli zeal for second Trump term matched by Palestinian enmity

Oliver Holmes Jerusalem correspondent
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA</span>
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Anyone in any doubt about Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred candidate in the US presidential election need only visit his personal Twitter account.

Right at the top, behind the headshot of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is a banner photo of him with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, their eyes fixed on each other.

“You have been the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House,” Netanyahu told his ally during a Washington visit this year. “Frankly, though we’ve had some great, outstanding friends in these halls, it’s not even close.”

That list includes Barack Obama, whose famously icy relationship with Netanyahu extends by proxy to his vice-president and Trump’s 2020 rival, Joe Biden.

Palestinians see the prospect of a second Trump term as disastrous. “If we are going to live another four years with President Trump, God help us, God help you and God help the whole world,” the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said this month.

Trump has arguably been the US president with most impact on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as he has sought to appeal to his pro-Israel base, including evangelical Christians. During the past four years, the US leader has ticked off much on Netanyahu’s hardline nationalist wishlist that was previously considered taboo.

He has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, declared the divided city of Jerusalem Israel’s capital, shut down Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and devised a “peace plan” that affords Israel’s government the vast majority of its demands.

Led by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the Trump administration has also persuaded the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel despite the ongoing occupation. It has also imposed further sanctions on Iran, a policy Israel has been advocating against its arch-enemy for years.

“For Netanyahu personally, obviously he has a preference,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former Israeli politician and president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “One of the assets that Mr Netanyahu sells to the Israeli public is his close intimate relationship with Mr Trump.”

Four more years of Trump could be hugely advantageous for the Israeli leader, particularly if Washington can convince more Arab states to establish open ties with Israel with few or no concessions to the Palestinians.

A further softening of Washington’s stance on illegal settlements in Palestinian territories, or even recognising annexation moves, could also be on the table. Trump’s US ambassador to Israel and former bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, is vocal in his support for Jewish settlements.

Trump’s image and that of his country may have plummeted worldwide, but many Israelis adore him. According to a survey conducted for the i24News channel, 63% would prefer him to win the election, compared with less than 19% who would prefer Biden.

Plesner, however, says that does not mean Israelis are overly concerned about a Biden presidency. “Mr Biden’s track record is well established. There is no cause for any worry among Israelis,” he said. “Both candidates are considered pro-Israel.”

Biden was often used as an emissary to Israel during this vice-presidency and has previously described Netanyahu as a friend. This year, however, he said the Israel leader had drifted “so, so far to the right”.

Salem Barahmeh, the executive director of the Ramallah-based Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, said Trump had been “extremely dangerous for the entire world, especially for Palestine and our struggle for freedom and rights”.

He added, however, that Trump had merely accelerated long-standing US policy from both Republican and Democrat administrations that allowed Israel to continue the occupation with few significant consequences.

“The Obama administration and Biden were part of that trajectory,” he said. A Biden win may even be counterproductive for the Palestinian rights movement, he added, arguing that Trump exposed US policy in the region for the facade that it was.

“Trump is a polarising figure, he mobilises a lot of resistance,” he said. “With Biden, it would be going back to that normal, but that normal was never good for Palestine and the Palestinians.”