Tel Aviv Diary: Anxious Israelis Lose Sympathy for Trump

It came as no surprise in Tel Aviv that President Donald Trump decided to join the long list of American Presidents who supported moving the embassy to Jerusalem on the campaign trail, only to renege on that promise once they are President.

Most Israelis don’t care about this issue. When the matter of the location of the American embassy is discussed, certainly, most people in Tel Aviv generally react with, “Why should they? I wouldn’t want to move to Jerusalem. Why would they want to move?”

American Embassy workers all live in Tel Aviv, or its upscale, seaside suburb of Herzliya Pituach. They enjoy the liberal Tel Aviv atmosphere, not to mention its culinary delights. The idea of moving these people to Jerusalem seems counterproductive.

However, Israeli government ministers reacted strongly to the decision. Minister of Tourism Yair Levine even tweeted in English, “This is not how to make America great again.” Levine was not alone, with almost everyone from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down expressing their disappointment.

On the morning after the decision, Minister Without Portfolio Tzachbi Hanegbi (one of the most experienced Israeli Ministers) stated during an interview that he was “not surprised by the American decision, but more surprised by the surprise and disappointment of his fellow ministers.”

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Yet, those who were most disappointed were Trump’s voters in Israel. Most of them truly believed his campaign promise and many said it was the only reason they had voted for him.

In defending Trump, Marc Zell, co-chair of Republicans Overseas Israel, stated that “Deferral of the Tel Aviv embassy move to Jerusalem disappointing, but a small price for anti-Iran/ISIS coalition.”

Judging from the responses he received on Facebook to this post, it’s clear that his rank and file supporters who truly believed President Trump was different no longer do so. Trump’s base of support among the right-wing in Israel has plummeted as a result of his decision on the siting of the American Embassy in Israel.

GettyImages-686734942 Donald Trump visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, May 22, 2017. RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty

Trump’s second decision of the day, to pull out of Paris Agreement, surprised Israelis much more than the decision to not move the Embassy. A few minutes after the announcement, I told my local butcher about Trump’s decision. He looked at me with amazement and said, “Why would he do something that stupid?” That comment was typical of the reactions on the streets of Tel Aviv.

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An Israeli venture capitalist said to me of Trump, “As much as I try, I just can’t understand this man.” A successful movie producer said, “He is just stupid. He makes decisions he just does not understand.” Nadav Eyal, the veteran Foreign Affairs editor for Channel 10 News, tweeted, “The world would have been a safer place if he [Trump] had moved the Embassy to Jerusalem and stayed in the Paris agreement.”

Eyal’s was the universal view. Even among those who opposed the move of the Embassy to Jerusalem, the potential damage of the Embassy move was infinitely smaller than the impact of leaving the Paris Agreement.

As the struggle for survival as a nation has diminished, Israelis of all political persuasions have become much more environmentally conscious.

Israel has been cleaning up its rivers and converting its power plants from coal to natural gas at a steady rate. In 2015, coal represented 55 percent of the fuel for Israeli power plants. In 2016, that rate had dropped to 45 percent and it is expected to eventually drop to zero.

In January, a new law went into effect that required supermarkets to sell plastic bags to their customers instead of giving them away. Since January, plastic bag consumption has dropped an astounding 80 percent.

However, beyond concerns for the environment, Trump’s actions present Israel with an existential challenge. For its whole history, Israel has relied on the US to be its most important friend in the world. That ally was always seen as a world leader. Israelis watch in horror as the Trump Administration determinedly abdicates that leadership.

In addition, most Israelis believe that the central basis of American Israeli friendship is shared values. Many now fear that in era when American foreign policy becomes valueless and transactional in nature, that friendship might become frayed and not survive.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.