November 22, 2019

Trump and Democrats Have Stake in ‘Bibi Primary’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Long before the Iowa and New Hampshire voters go to the polls next year, the first primary of the 2020 presidential campaign is already upon us.

Call it the Bibi primary.

Given the internal divisions within their party over Israel and the Middle East, most of the Democratic primary candidates have decided that the best way to straddle the divide between traditional pro-Israel Democrats and the party’s newer wave of more confrontational anti-Zionists is to soft-pedal more substantive questions on settlements, Gaza and other security matters and to escalate the vitriol in their personal rhetoric against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Almost all of them go to great lengths to explain that their dissatisfaction with Netanyahu does not necessarily make them opponents of Israel, and that they would be eager to work with a more reasonable Israeli leader.

All of which is just fine unless Bibi is no longer Israel’s prime minister. If Netanyahu does not remain in power after the upcoming election, he is almost certain to be replaced by a like-minded successor on many of the issues that agitate Democratic activists. “Bibi-ism without Bibi” would leave the current policy disagreements between American liberals and Israeli conservatives firmly in place.

There might be a short-term window in which the Democratic candidates praise the new prime minister and express hope for what they consider a more productive working relationship. But the strong similarities between Netanyahu’s agenda and that of his successor will quickly close that window of goodwill, which will make it much harder for the candidates to continue to pacify their party’s base by demonizing yet another Israeli leader without either shifting leftward on substantive matters or risking the wrath of angry primary voters. Before too long, they will realize that the best political outcome for them would have been for Bibi remain in office so they can continue to vilify him personally while still proclaiming their support for a more accommodating — but hypothetical — alternative.

If Netanyahu does not remain in power, he is almost certain to be replaced by a like-minded successor.

On the other side of the aisle, it looks as though President Donald Trump is beginning to hedge his bets.

As recently as late August, there was fevered speculation in both countries about what type of last-minute surprise Trump would unveil to help his friend secure re-election. Perhaps Trump would endorse annexation of the West Bank, participate in a three-way security summit with Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, or even return Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to Israel.  But in stark contrast to his high-profile moves before the April vote designed to shore up Netanyahu’s support, Trump has been much more circumspect heading into the new elections.

The most notable interaction between Netanyahu and Trump recently has been the absence of interaction. It was widely reported that the Israeli prime minister was not even able to get Trump on the phone to try to convince him not to pursue a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting. After Trump’s rebuff, Netanyahu appears to be resigned to have wistfully conceded that such a meeting would not be as bad as all that.

So Trump could still attempt to put his thumb — if not his fist — on the scale for Netanyahu. He could announce an enhanced security agreement or even an 11th-hour visit to Israel. But he seems less likely to invest as much of his own political capital in his old friend. Maybe he feels like he’s already done all he can to incrementally increase his own Jewish support and that other issues will be as valuable for motivating his religious conservative base. Or maybe Trump thinks he’s already won the Bibi primary — and that there’s nothing else in it for him to stand with his embattled ally.

Dan Schnur is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.