Nov 4, 2020

Axios from Tel Aviv

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • Today we're looking at how election night in the U.S. looked from Israel, Iran and the Arab world. It's 1,334 words (5 minutes).
  • Follow the latest Axios election coverage here.

Sign up here if you haven't yet, and please spread the word.

1 big thing: Netanyahu's election night rule... stay quiet

Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Pool, Gali Tibbon/Getty Images

While Joe Biden and Donald Trump were giving their initial election night reactions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ordering ministers from his Likud party to refrain from any public statements on the vote, two ministers tell me.

Why it matters: Netanyahu has closer relations with Trump than any other world leader, but he doesn't want to give even the slightest impression that he's taking sides before the results are final, Israeli officials told me.

What they're saying:

  • Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein dodged a question about the U.S. election at a press conference today, saying he wanted to wait until all the votes were counted.
  • Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, also from Likud, wouldn’t discuss the election in a radio interview except to say that he didn’t think a Biden administration would roll back Trump’s policies on “legalizing” West Bank settlements. Biden has publicly opposed settlements.

Flashback: Trump was disappointed that Netanyahu declined to publicly endorse him during a phone call held before TV cameras on Oct. 23, one Netanyahu aide told me.

  • During the call to announce an Israel-Sudan normalization agreement, Trump asked Netanyahu if “Sleepy Joe” could have sealed such a deal. Netanyahu gave a diplomatic answer and said he'd be happy to work for peace with any American partner.
  • One of Trump’s advisers told his Israeli counterpart about Trump’s disappointment in an informal conversation, Netanyahu’s aide said.
  • The Israeli side then checked in formally with the White House to see if there was an issue, but was reassured that things were fine.
  • Between the lines: Netanyahu has been hoping his ideological ally will win, but he doesn't want to get off on the wrong foot with a potential President Biden.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu was following the coverage overnight on multiple American TV networks. He also spoke on the phone with Israel's U.S. ambassador, Ron Dermer, for updates and analysis.

  • One aide to Netanyahu said the prime minister came into Election Day concerned about a Biden landslide.
  • But by Wednesday morning in Israel, Netanyahu was cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a Trump victory.

Go deeper: U.S. election result will shake up Israeli politics

2. Israelis hope for four more years of Trump

Taking a selfie at a new Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights, named for Donald Trump. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Polls suggest that, like Netanyahu, most Israelis are also hoping for four more years of Trump.

The big picture: Israel is one of the only countries in the world where both the government and the population at large are highly supportive of Trump.

  • Flashback: Trump’s favorability in Israel was roughly on par with Hillary Clinton's in 2016.

It's much higher now — boosted by a series of steps that rolled back or shifted Obama-era policies.

  • First among those was Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. Embassy there, steps that had the overwhelming approval of Israel's Jewish majority.
  • His decisions to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel were also widely supported — as were the more recent U.S.-brokered normalization deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.
  • Trump's popularity on the Israeli right was bolstered by his decisions to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), close the PLO office in Washington, and announce that the U.S. did not consider settlement construction illegal.
  • Of note: Many of Trump’s moves were condemned by the broader international community even as they were embraced by Israel.

By the numbers:

  • A Channel 12 poll published on Oct. 30 found that 54% of Israelis want Trump to win a second term, compared to 21% support for Biden. Among right-wing voters, the margin was 77% to 7% in Trump's favor.
  • A Channel 13 poll published on Nov. 1 showed 68% of Israelis favoring Trump, versus 12% for Biden.
  • Among 32 countries surveyed by Pew, confidence in Trump's leadership is second highest in Israel (71%). Israel is also one of just two countries to express higher confidence in Trump now than in Barack Obama in 2016.

What’s next:

  • If Trump wins, he could use his popularity in Israel to push for concessions from the Israeli government to make a potential deal with the Palestinians possible.
  • If Biden wins, many Israelis will worry that he represents a return to the Obama era. Alternatively, he could be more like Bill Clinton — a Democratic president who remained highly popular in Israel despite clashing with Netanyahu.
3. Arab countries hoping for change

Donald Trump managed to strengthen relations with several leaders in the Arab world, but polls suggest he's deeply unpopular with the people of the region.

Reproduced from Arab Barometer; Chart: Axios Visuals

Breaking it down: According to an Arab Barometer poll published on Monday, just 3%–18% of people across five countries believe a Trump victory would be good for the region — though many have little confidence in Biden either.

  • Big pluralities in Tunisia (52%), Algeria (43%) and Morocco (39%) would prefer Biden, with Trump receiving between 7% and 12%.
  • In Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority, only 3% think Trump’s policies are better for the region. While 23% said they prefer Biden, another 23% said the two are equally bad and 50% responded "don't know."
  • In Lebanon, the results are complicated. Neither candidate fared well, and the most popular response was "equally bad."

A YouGov poll published by Saudi-based Arab News on Oct. 26 showed similar trends.

  • 40% of respondents across 18 Arab countries said Biden would be better for the Middle East, 12% thought Trump would be better, and 49% said either would be bad.
  • Interestingly, most respondents thought Biden should distance himself from Obama-era policies, which 53% of the participants saw as negative.

The YouGov/Arab News poll showed a mixed reaction to Trump's policies.

  • 89% disapprove of Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
  • 48% approve of the decision to order the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Those numbers jump to 57% in Iraq and 71% in Syria, two countries in which the Soleimani-led Quds Force was very active.
  • On Iran, respondents were split evenly between approval for Trump's maximum pressure approach (33%), a desire to see the old Iran deal revived (34%), or support for new negotiations toward a tougher deal (33%).

What’s next: According to the YouGov poll, the three main issues that Arabs would like to see the U.S. prioritize are empowering youth in the Middle East (44%), solving the Arab-Israeli conflict (44%) and containing the coronavirus (37%). 

4. Iran's message: We don't care who wins

Rouhani, Oct. 7. Photo: Iranian Presidency handout via Getty Images

With the U.S. election remaining too close to call, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed his government didn't care who the next American president would be — only what policies he would take toward Iran.

Why it matters: Both Trump and Biden have said they want to get the Iranians back to the table to negotiate a new nuclear deal.

  • Biden wants to start with a return to the old deal, while Trump plans to stick with "maximum pressure" until Iran agrees to talk.
  • The Iranians have attempted to wait Trump out, refusing to negotiate unless he eases sanctions. But if Trump wins, they'll have to recalculate.

What they're saying:

  • At the top of a Cabinet meeting that took place while both Biden and Trump were giving their first post-election speeches, Rouhani insisted Iran’s economic and political decisions in recent months had not been calculated based on the outcome of the U.S. election.
  • “For us, the party and the individual who wins are not important, but the policy of the next U.S. government [is]. America must return to international law and multilateral treaties," Rouhani said.
  • Rouhani added that in order to change the course of relations, the U.S. government would have to show the Iranian people respect, rather than sanctions and threats.

What’s next: Israel’s most prominent Iran expert, Raz Zimmt of the Institute for National Security Studies, told me people should be wary of making assumptions about what Iran's policies will be after the election.

  • “A Biden victory will not necessarily bring de-escalation between the U.S. and Iran, or the renewal of the nuclear deal."
  • "On the other hand, a Trump victory will not necessarily cause Iran to fold, accept U.S. terms and return to negotiations without preconditions," Zimmt said.

Go deeper: How Biden might tackle the Iran deal

5. Photo of the day
Photo: Har Hevron Regional Council

Settler leaders and the chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel Marc Zell (in the middle, blowing the shofar) prayed on Monday at the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron for a Trump victory.