It was early morning on Nov. 9 when American news outlets began reporting that Republican candidate Donald Trump was about to be elected as the next president of the United States. The news sparked a frenzy of activity on Israeli social networks. Dozens of journalists broadcasting from the United States and also from studios in Israel skipped relentlessly between Twitter and Facebook, as did plenty of Israelis. They gave up on a full night’s sleep to take part in the heated online debates, trying to share in the experience of a historic event in the making.
All the attention was further proof of Israeli society’s enormous interest in the 2016 presidential election. On the night the votes were being counted, the heated, emotional debates that erupted between Israelis watching the American drama unfold made it seem as though the election was for the Knesset, not the White House. It was hard to ignore supporters of the Israeli right gloating online in response to some of the country’s leading journalists, who could not hide their shock and disappointment at Democrat Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
Trump’s surprising victory has dominated Israeli Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as WhatsApp groups since election night, dividing Israelis into left and right. The left is shocked and terrified, while the right feels like it won another round. It was as though they were watching a rerun of the press' failure to predict Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu’s huge victory in the 2015 election.
Boaz Bismuth, the head of the foreign news desk for the free newspaper Israel Hayom, interviewed Trump during the campaign. He celebrated his own victory in an interview with Army Radio, speaking as if he were the only person to foresee the results. Between the lines, Bismuth delivered the message that the pundits he thinks identify with the left, who preferred to interview Clinton and President Barack Obama during the campaign, ignored the Republican candidate and colored their coverage with their political desires.
Never before has Israeli media coverage of an American election been so intense and so involved. It wasn’t just the broadcast studios set up in the candidates’ headquarters and in New York’s Times Square, manned by the Israeli commercial networks’ top journalists. There was also a clear sense from their reports that most reporters and analysts preferred the Democratic candidate. Reflecting the spirit of the times in Israel, where even the prime minister draws a crude distinction between journalists from the left and the right, coverage of the US election was divided into camps by politicians and the public alike. Unlike the center, which leaned toward Clinton, Netanyahu’s house newspaper, Israel Hayom, owned by his associate Sheldon Adelson, backed Trump. Its coverage of the election as a whole tended to favor him.
One of the reasons Israelis were so involved in this election campaign was undoubtedly the knowledge that the results would have far-reaching political and diplomatic ramifications for Israel. When most commentators and polls in the United States predicted an almost certain victory for Clinton, the Israeli media focused on the anticipated implications for Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
Until 2012, Israelis showed no exceptional interest in the US election. Then, Netanyahu broke the sacred rule to stay out of American politics. The prime minister supported previous Republican candidate Mitt Romney and had a bitter and well-publicized conflict with Obama throughout the president’s entire second term. While Netanyahu did not repeat his 2012 mistake and made a point of staying out of the election — publicly, at least — the taboo had already been shattered.
The extensive Israeli coverage of the election could be explained by the various TV channels’ fight for ratings, but it also reflected the sense among Israelis that these dramatic elections would have an impact on life here as well. While it is possible to dispute the content, which included timeworn cliches repeated again and again throughout the protracted broadcasts and an inability by professional journalists to hide their personal preferences, there is no doubt that this extensive coverage responded to a real need. Israelis, including those not particularly involved in politics in everyday life, felt that the choice of the next US president would directly impact them as well.
Beyond any political identification with Trump or Clinton and fascination with such a sensational, close struggle, Israelis were also intrigued by the changes taking place in American society. They realized that the social changes in Israel’s strongest and most important ally would impact them directly too.
In their in-depth reports about the campaign over the last few months, senior foreign correspondents like Arad Nir on Channel 2 and Channel 10’s Nadav Eyal provided Israelis with extensive, almost daily descriptions of the developments taking place in American society. The social networks offered Israelis a chance to express their thoughts about them and opened up the debate, but they also contributed to a more shallow discussion, as they are prone to do. The climax came when Trump became the messiah of the Israeli right based on his election promises — to relocate the US Embassy to Jerusalem, for instance. No one has the slightest idea whether the 45th president of the United States will show any interest whatsoever in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, if he will turn a blind eye to construction in the settlements or decide to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Yet none of that is interfering with the Israeli right’s celebration. They are reacting to the Republican victory as if they themselves had just won.