The second presidential debate was yesterday, and the entire 90 minutes went by without a single mention of Israel. In the first debate, the country was also not mentioned, though Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump did briefly reference his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As with so many things this election cycle, this is unprecedented. 2012 isn’t a perfect comparison since in that year, the debates were themed. The theme of the first debate was the economy, so it made sense that Israel wasn’t mentioned. Then, during the town hall debate, the one equivalent to Sunday night’s, Israel was examined. During the final debate, which was specifically focused on foreign policy, Israel was discussed at length. Going back further, in 2008, it was mentioned 20 times in total. Israel came up much less in 2004, but both candidates brought it up in the very first debate. In 2000, it came up 11 times in just the first debate. (You can find all the transcripts here.)
It’s possible that the third debate will feature a 40 minute back-and-forth about the two state solution–anything can happen, especially in this election cycle–but it’s still worth asking why Israel is being discussed less now than in any election in the 21st Century.
After the first debate, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach answered this question with a quote, attributed to Golda Meir, that good times would come to Israel when it’s mentioned in the media as much as Switzerland. “Well, good times, here we are!!” the Rabbi wrote, but unfortunately he was only joking. Times are as arduous for Israel as they’ve been since 2000, give or take a Lebanese War. The bigger difference is what’s going on in the U.S., not in Israel. There’s so much to discuss during this election cycle that it’s understandable that moderators haven’t found time for a specific question about Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas.
Still, you could also argue that the candidates are talking about Israel but by proxy. Israel may not be coming up, but Syria, perhaps the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East, is a consistent topic of conversation. Even more pressing is the Iran deal, which Netanyahu has campaigned heavily against.
In fact, one could argue that these proxy battles are the only ones that Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton could fight since there’s little substantive difference in their positions on Israel (they like it!). There’s not even much difference in how the Israeli government views them. Netanyahu has done as much as any world leader to aid Trump’s campaign, but a Wikileaks email from over the weekend indicated that he’d be perfectly content with a Clinton presidency as well. (The overall Likud attitude is “Anyone But Obama, Please.”) Neither can say with much conviction that one would be better for Israel than the other except by way of their Iran and Syria positions.
One thing is for certain: Florida and Pennsylvania are both swing states with significant Jewish populations, and if either candidate thinks that they can win those voters by talking about Israel, they will.