Israelis and Russians like Trump; others don’t
A recent poll of people in 37 countries conducted by the Pew Research Centre indicated that, on average, only 22% of respondents said US President Donald Trump would make the right decisions in international affairs.
A similar poll conducted by Pew at the end of US President Barack Obama’s term in office showed that 64% of respondents had confidence in him.
In only two countries did Trump receive greater support than Obama: Israel, by 56%-49%; and Russia, where Trump outpolled Obama by a huge margin — 53% to 11%.
Trump also was popular in the Philippines, where 69% of those asked expressed confidence in the Republican president. This was below Obama’s 94% approval among Filipino respondents. Only 5% of Mexican poll participants expressed confidence Trump, who has pledged to erect a wall along the US-Mexican border.
Trump’s popularity in Israel and Russia is not surprising. Obama was unpopular in Israel almost from the get-go. In his first months in office, he travelled to Cairo and Istanbul but avoided the Jewish state. Obama did not visit Israel until his second term.
Obama made two serious efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace; first under the direction of special envoy George Mitchell and, in his second term, with US Secretary of State John Kerry. A key element of this push for peace was pressure on Israel to cease settlement expansion. Neither peace initiative was welcomed by Israel or its US supporters.
The animosity towards Obama grew when he sought a deal with Iran to limit Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for the easing of international economic sanctions.
Israel was so hostile to the deal that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travelled to Washington to address a joint session of the US Congress to criticise the administration’s policies. This unprecedented diplomatic affront to a sitting president essentially ended any prospect for better bilateral relations between Obama and Israel and many Israelis waited for the 2016 elections to usher in a more amenable US president.
Most of the world was shocked by Trump’s victory in November 2016 but Israelis must have been ecstatic. The newly elected president vowed to make Netanyahu the first official visitor to the White House (one of the few campaign promises he actually kept), nominated a right-wing, pro-settler to be US ambassador to Israel, and — in his White House meeting with Netanyahu — suggested that a two-state solution may not be the answer to peace.
Trump named his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead his administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Kushner has no diplomatic or political experience and comes from a family that long has financially supported Israeli settlements. Israelis must have thought a member of the Likud Party had won the US presidency.
Trump has since backed down on some of his positions, such as pledging to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and promising to pull out of the Iran deal. He has even suggested that Israel should slow down its settlement-building enterprise. Netanyahu, however, is immensely more politically savvy than the former real estate developer in the White House and will most likely find it relatively easy to get his way.
Trump’s popularity among Russians also is no surprise. Throughout the 2016 election campaign, the Russian media consistently reported on Trump in favourable terms. Trump’s promise to bring about a more cooperative US-Russian relationship and his clear admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who remains popular among his people, certainly contributed to his popularity.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russians have yearned for the kind of international respect that Moscow enjoyed under the 70-year communist government. Trump’s flattery of their leader and emphasis on the importance of US-Russian relations gave Russians what they wanted.
Trump’s desire for better US-Russian relations has not materialised but this is primarily due to investigations into possible collusion between Russia and some of Trump’s campaign advisers, including Kushner. Russians apparently do not hold Trump responsible for the state of tension between Moscow and Washington.
There is another common factor uniting Israelis and Russians behind Trump: Both countries are evolving into ethno-nationalist states and Trump’s political rhetoric, especially his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and “America First” admonitions, strike a familiar and popular chord.
Confidence in Trump was abysmal in the three Arab countries included in the poll: 18% in Tunisia, 15% in Lebanon and 9% in Jordan. In fairness to Trump, Obama also polled low in those countries: 27%, 36% and 14%, respectively.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Pew poll was the steep fall in stated confidence among citizens of traditional US allies, including European countries with which the United States has worked for decades to address international problems and crises. Among respondents from NATO members, confidence in Trump ranged from 25% in Italy to 7% in Spain.