Sunday’s presidential debate drew a large audience at an odd hour: The Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump slugfest brought viewers in Israel to their TVs at 4 a.m.
Just as the 2016 elections seem unprecedented for Americans, they’re different for Israeli, too, says journalist Nitzan Horowitz, who is covering the election in the United States for Israel’s Channel 2 news.
“This time is very unusual because this time the Israeli audience is extremely enthusiastic about your election here,” he said. “They take it as if we’re talking about an election in Israel.”
The presence of Trump may be the reason, Horowitz says.
“We are absolutely stunned by this phenomenon, and people just ask themselves how such a person can become the Republican nominee for president of the United States. And my most difficult job is to try to explain this Trump phenomenon. How can such a man with no political experience, without ever having any public position, who’s not even a Republican, become the nominee of the party?”
Horowitz’s challenge is to explain what’s driven Trump’s rise: socioeconomic divisions, a fear among some of Muslim immigration and persistent racial inequality. These factors aren’t obvious to someone sitting in Tel Aviv, he says.
“This is hard for Israelis to digest,” he says. “America is a rich country, but still there are gaps between segments of the population. We’ve been reporting about it all day for many months now, and you need to explain everything.”
Despite becoming Channel 2’s expert on the U.S. election, Horowitz’s reporting is focused on the American-Jewish vote and how Israelis are reacting to the presidential campaign. He travels around the United States conducting interviews. He posts multiple stories a day online.
An Israel Democracy Institute poll found that 43 percent of Israelis support Clinton versus 34 percent for Trump. Israel’s Clinton supporters, Horowitz says, feel the former secretary of state has a history of friendship with the Jewish state. Because she’s familiar, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to favor her.
“It’s not like Clinton has warm relations with Netanyahu — quite the contrary,” says Horowitz, who was a member of Knesset in 2009-15 for the left-wing Meretz party. “But at least we know what to expect. Netanyahu knows her very well, and he knows how to handle things with her and with her people.”
Horowitz said Israel’s Trump supporters on the far right find his tough language toward Muslims encouraging. But Horowitz noted that Trump’s expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump’s threats to cut off support for NATO have brought his lack of foreign policy credentials into focus and made him a “big question mark” in the minds of Israelis.
This the fourth presidential campaign Horowitz has covered since 1988. He says when he talks to Israelis at home, the first words out of people’s mouths about the election are “crazy” and “circus.”
“That’s their first impression,” he says. “They just don’t believe that it can happen in a country like the U.S.”
And Israelis can’t seem to get enough, he says.
“Through the Internet, we can measure and count the entries of each user, and we already know that once there is a Trump story, hundreds of thousands of people are getting it,” he said.
He said many people in Tel Aviv approached him when he returned home for Rosh Hashanah recently, all with questions about the election.
“They were all asking me who was going to win and what’s going on,” he says. “They have many questions, and people stop me in the street and ask me this.”