Five days after the U.S. elections, my husband and I enjoyed a rare Pilates class between lockdowns. Next to us, two American residents of our Israeli hometown of Zichron Yaakov loudly celebrated Joe Biden’s emerging victory, to which they had contributed crucial votes: One was from Pennsylvania, the other from Illinois. We were happy to congratulate them.
Our Pilates studio is in the minority. According to a November 3 poll, only 23 percent of Israelis belonged to our haggard, sleep-deprived and hopeful little club of pro-Biden Israelis, who followed the campaign, the election night and its aftermath with a tentative but gradually widening smile. Why so few?
One reason is obvious. The Trump-negotiated Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, followed by the opening in Morocco, are wonderful news to most Israelis, including those who are sworn anti-Palestinians and racist deriders of Israel’s Arab citizens. Many of my centrist and left-leaning fellow citizens agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Donald Trump is the best friend of Israel ever to have occupied the White House. (My own vote would go to Harry Truman, but most Israelis have never heard of him.) Who cares, a friend recently asked me, if Trump is bad for his country or for democracy? He is good for us, and we cannot afford to be finicky. Haven’t the Jews suffered enough?
The poll, commissioned by the Israeli radio station 103FM, had 57 percent of Israel’s citizens rooting for Trump. Among right-leaning Israelis, the score was a whopping 84 percent. These numbers are something of a mystery. If Biden and the Democrats are a very rough equivalent of the Israeli center and center-left parties, why did Biden not win the hearts of the 46 percent who supported those parties in Israel’s last elections?
Two main reasons stand out: ignorance and manipulation. Many Israelis simply avoided America’s complex campaign politics, failing to register Trump’s attacks against democracy and his dismal failure on COVID-19. Far more, apparently, swallowed the fake narrative offered by right-wing gurus on social media, lock, stock and barrel. I have followed the Facebook, Twitter and homepages of some of these mandarins, including Middle East expert Guy Bechor, historian Gadi Taub and journalist Caroline Glick. They, alongside several commentators from right-wing television Channel 20, provided a large Israeli audience with an alternative history of the campaign, the polls and the victor. What they have in common, besides a near-religious faith in Rudy Giuliani’s version of reality, is their staunch support of Netanyahu.
Amazingly, their storyline caught on. Before the election, they promised their followers a huge Trump victory. After the election, they echoed every tweet and litigation attempt, promising dramatic twists and redemptive court decisions. In late December, when most of their Israeli believers had called it quits and accepted Biden’s victory, some of these gurus were still predicting that Vice President Mike Pence would crown Trump by heeding the “true” electors on January 6.
The gurus wisely refrained from attacking the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, Bechor turned against the Jewish Americans who had voted for the Democrats, accusing them of a devious plot against Trump. In an interview on the mainstream Channel 13, he went so far as to propose that “progressive” Jewish Americans be summarily excluded from Israel’s Law of Return.
Despite the best efforts of responsible journalists, commentators and bloggers, many Israelis fell for the fake news gurus. The reason, I think, is that Israel has no Fox News. Its serious news media—Haaretz and the three mainstream television channels—have long been branded left-wing, biased or downright lying by Netanyahu’s media circle, and the stigma has stuck. No right-leaning news outlet inhabits the vacuum between the demonized main media and the Bibi-crowd. The result is, well, sad. Fox News acknowledged Biden’s victory weeks before Israel’s Channel 20, and thousands of Israelis woke up one morning to find their trusted media mandarins far to the right of Mitch McConnell.
This reality shock may bode well for Biden, especially if he plays the strong Middle Eastern hand that now seems to be Trump’s best legacy. Netanyahu may lose an election, or quit his job due to his ongoing trial, quite early in Biden’s presidency. Whoever succeeds him may have trouble sustaining his ugly and successful manipulation of the Israeli media, especially the social networks. Israelis are bound for further rude awakenings, and Biden may yet surprise them by proving that he, not Trump, is our true and moral-backboned friend. If he does, my Pilates class minority is likely to grow miraculously and fast.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli historian and essayist and a professor at the University of Haifa.
Opening picture: Then-Vice President Biden meets with Netanyahu, 2016. (Photo credit: US Embassy of Israel)