Jerusalem — “The Reset.”
That was the buzzword this week as Israelis contemplated a new administration in Washington, one almost sure to be more favorable — at least in terms of optics — towards a Jewish state that resides in a very rough neighborhood.
The American presidential election will allow Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “to press the restart button,” said Shmuel Rosner, an expert in Israel-U.S. relations.
Rosner said Netanyahu’s relationship with President Barack Obama — one that led to charges that he had turned Israel into a wedge issue on Capitol Hill — has been “tainted” by two things: differences of opinion over foreign policy and “personal animosity.”
The policy issues “on settlements, the Iran agreement, for example, aren’t going away” just because a new president will be in office, Rosner said, “but the elections are an opportunity for both Israel and the U.S. to try and shape things in a different fashion.”
On the eve of the election, some Israelis turned to prayer, both for their candidate and for the strained state of U.S.-Israel relations.
On Monday night David Weissman, who moved from Sunnyside, Queens to Jerusalem three years ago, attended a pro-Trump rally in a downtown Jerusalem park before walking to the Western Wall with about 20 other die-hard Donald Trump supporters.
“I feel prayer is powerful and I prayed that Trump would be our next president,” said Weissman, a conservative blogger, as he stood at the Kotel. “The results of this election will impact not only America but Israel.”
This reality has preoccupied Israelis and the Israeli government for months, and prompted tens of thousands of American citizens living in Israel to vote by absentee ballot.
After being accused of meddling in U.S. affairs when he lobbied Congress against the Iran deal, Netanyahu has remained uncharacteristically mum on which candidate he favors, and warned Israel’s lawmakers not to comment on the elections.
“Whoever is elected the new president, I am convinced that U.S.-Israel relations, which are solid and strong, will not only remain as such, but will further strengthen,” Netanyahu told his cabinet two days prior to the election.
“We also expect that the U.S. will remain faithful to the principle that it has set over many years, that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute can be resolved only by direct negotiations without preconditions, and of course, not in decisions by the UN or other international institutions,” Netanyahu said.
Zalman Shoval, who twice served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., agrees that Netanyahu is hoping for “a reset,” not exclusively with regard to the Israeli-American relationship but also with regard to the way America chooses to deal with the Middle East as a whole.
Shoval said the Obama administration’s “inward-looking,” hands-off approach to the Middle East has led its “traditional allies” in the region to fear that the U.S. is less reliable than it was under George W. Bush and has “emboldened” Iran and other anti-Western elements.
Israel, Shoval said, “is obviously interested and hopeful that the next president will reiterate America’s role as a dominant power in the region” and at the same time reject “the mantra that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the main factor of instability in the Middle East.”
Given the turmoil in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, “it’s clear to most people that this is a secondary issue at best,” Shoval said.
Eran Lerman, an Israeli former deputy national security adviser, hopes the next administration will examine the Obama administration’s actions in the Middle East.
“What encouraged the Palestinians to be more difficult? Why did [Secretary of State] Kerry fail? And why was the Obama presidency among the most negative for advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians?”
While it remains to be seen how the new American president will act toward Israel, pundits say Netanyahu has reason to fear that President Obama will introduce or at least support a United Nations resolution that would set the parameters for a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The big question is, ‘What will Obama do between now and January?’” said Jonathan Rynhold, Middle East analyst and senior researcher at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
“He may well want to leave a legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That could mean supporting a resolution that refers to settlements as illegal, that could deal with the status of Jerusalem, final borders. It would narrow the wiggle room for Israel and increase the legitimacy down the road of an imposed” solution to the conflict.
There is no doubt that Israelis feel invested in the election.
In a poll of Jewish and Arab Israelis conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, 42 favored Clinton while 24 percent favored Trump, while 13 percent said both candidates were indistinguishable.
Rosner attributed the results to the fact that Israelis, who supported Republican candidates in the past three elections, have good memories of the Bill Clinton presidency and believe that Hillary Clinton is capable.
“There is also the erratic behavior of Mr. Trump and the inability of Israelis to understand his positions,” Rosner said.
But American-Israeli expats favored Trump in a poll, where he beat Hillary Clinton 49 percent to 44 percent. The more religious the voter, the more he or she supported Trump: 63 percent of Orthodox respondents and 85 percent of ultra-Orthodox respondents voted for Trump while 75 percent of secular and 54 percent of traditional people voted for Clinton.
Forty-three percent of the expats polled said they voted for either candidate based on issues related to Israel and foreign policy, and that “the danger of electing the other candidate” was the number one reason they voted the way they did.
The poll was carried out by Keevoon Global Research for iVote Israel.
At a festive election night party at Mike’s Place, a popular bar in downtown Jerusalem, a couple hundred American expatriates of various ages and their Israeli friends watched CNN on a half dozen large TV screens. An American flag was hung in the middle of the bar, where pendants from American party was organized by Republicans in Israel, though there were some Democrats in attendance.
Noah Tolwin, a Detroit native who will soon be going into the Israeli army, said he voted for Trump because “he says things the way he sees them and because I feel he’ll be a lot better for the Jews. From what I’ve read Hillary has come out as pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.
“That’s important to me,” Tolwin said.