‘Trump Make Israel Great’ reads the banner on the deserted hotel next to the new American embassy in Jerusalem. Unlike most of the world population, Israelis regard the US President as a big improvement on Barack Obama. In government, his decision to move the embassy here from Tel Aviv has elevated him to near godlike status. ‘We are very lucky that the strongest kid in the classroom is on our side in this crazy school,’ is how Yoav Gallant, Israel’s housing minister, puts it.
There is evidence for Trumpophilia all over the place. Signs proclaiming the US President a ‘friend of Zion’ are dotted around the Holy City and ‘God Bless America’ booms out in restaurants. Even the reports that a shady Israeli intelligence company, Black Cube, spied on the Obama administration have become a source of national pride. ‘It’s our company that all around the world people want to use,’ beams a local journalist.
According to Amos Harel, a security analyst at Haaretz newspaper: ‘No Israeli politician could say the embassy shouldn’t be moved and stay alive.’ Benjamin Netanyahu’s main political rival, Yair Lapid — aka Israel’s Emmanuel Macron — dismisses suggestions that the timing of the opening, just before Palestine’s Yawm an-Nakba (‘Day of the Catastrophe’) is ill-judged. ‘Can you think of a day when it would not be inflammatory?’ he asks. Still, nobody quite expected a death toll of around 60 from the Gaza protests on Monday.
The Israeli government hopes that other countries will follow America’s lead in Jerusalem. In the Knesset, Gallant says he has directed his office to locate a quarter in Jerusalem for the next round of embassies to be built. His pitch: ‘If you snooze, you lose. You should be the first one to take a spot so you have a better view of Jerusalem.’
Life goes on amid the violence. Up in the Golan Heights, where the country borders Syria, the landscape looks serene just hours after Iranian forces fired 20 rockets at Israeli forces. The vineyards are postcard-perfect and the people relaxed. The only reminder of the events of the night before comes when the owners of the hilltop coffee shop close early. Their kids, it turns out, need to catch up on the sleep they missed thanks to the shelling.
For now, Netanyahu’s bromance with Trump has helped him get back out in front of his rival Lapid in the polls. But with accusations of corruption lingering, there could be an early election. ‘Israel’s founding fathers never imagined that Jews would vote for the same person every time so there’s no limit in terms,’ one down-hearted local complains. Netanyahu’s father lived to be 102, so Bibi could be around for a while. Lapid is more optimistic: ‘In 1945, you voted Churchill out of office,’ he tells our British delegation. ‘Nobody is non-removable.’
As Israel, a country only a touch smaller than Wales, celebrates surviving 70 years, it feels the nuclear threat of an expansionist Iran. The Israeli Defence Force, politicians and citizens can all agree that the Iran agreement which Trump withdrew from last week was a bad deal — paving the way for Tehran to build a bomb eventually. What top officials can’t agree on is whether ‘no deal’ is better than a bad deal.
You can see why Israelis are so quick to fall in love with American presidents who support them. When former prime minister Ariel Sharon told President George W. Bush repeatedly that ‘you are our greatest friend’, Bush finally replied: ‘Mr Prime Minister, may I ask you a question? Who is your second best friend in the world?’ There was silence in the room.