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Netanyahu Might Miss Trump as Israel Goes to the Polls Again

In-depth: Unlike his predecessor, Joe Biden will not interfere in Israel's Knesset elections, something that could pose a problem for a prime minister used to being showered with campaign-friendly gifts by his good friend in the White House.
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January 25, 2021
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands next to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during their meeting in New York, U.S., September 25, 2016. Kobi Gideon Government Press Office (GPO)/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

The Media Line — Joe Biden was sworn in on Wednesday as the 46th president of the United States, turning a new page in American history after four tumultuous years that culminated in one of the most contentious and ugliest election cycles ever.

Yet while the U.S. prepares to move on from its own controversial campaign, Israel, one of its closest allies, is just getting started.

A 2019 Likud election poster boasts of party leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s close ties to then-U.S. president Donald Trump (Photo: AFP)

In two months, Israeli voters will head to the polls for the fourth time in two years, as the political stalemate that briefly seemed to have been resolved in May continues in full force.

But not everything is the same in this endless cycle. For the first time since 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already dogged by a challenging political landscape and a crippling corruption trial, will run for office without his trusted friend occupying the White House.

In the previous three elections, Netanyahu knew he could rely on President Donald Trump.

Time and again, the former president came through for the embattled prime minister, offering diplomatic and political gestures aimed at bolstering Netanyahu’s standing in the polls mere days before Election Day.

In late March 2019, with less than two weeks remaining before the first round of Israeli elections, Trump announced his decision to officially recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.

In January 2020, a month before the third election, Trump called a special summit at the White House to unroll his Mideast peace plan. The proposal skewed heavily in Israel’s favor and was rejected outright by the Palestinian Authority, which refused to even attend the ceremony or participate in the preliminary meetings.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rails against the Trump peace plan during a meeting at the UN General Assembly, Feb. 2020 (Photo: EPA)

Netanyahu, to no one’s surprise, wasted no time in featuring his Washington trip and the Golan Heights declaration in his campaign adverts, boasting of his special ties with the leader of the free world and his ability to elicit more gifts from the president than any of his competitors.

Trump’s involvement in Israeli campaigns, while perhaps the most obvious and unapologetic, was certainly not the first time a sitting U.S. president attempted to tip the scale in one side’s favor.

It’s not unprecedented at all,” says Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. under Netanyahu.

“[Former U.S. president Bill] Clinton was exceptional about this, really open about it. When [Netanyahu] was elected in 1996, the first thing he said was ‘I’m not going to deal with [then-U.S. ambassador to Israel] Martin Indyk,’ because of his open support for [opponent] Shimon Peres.”

Then-U.S. President Barack Obama came to Israel in 2013 “and made a speech where he called on people to protest against their own government! That was incredible,” Oren says.

Michael Oren with then-president Barack Obama in the White House during his stint as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. (Photo: Lawrence Jackson)

“Presidents can also punish, instead of giving gifts,” Oren says, noting that former president George H.W. Bush did that to former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.

“A lot of people say that Shamir lost his elections because he fell out with Bush,” Oren says, referring to the 1992 elections.

As for whether Biden will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and involve himself in Israel’s upcoming elections, experts were split.

“I doubt very highly that Biden would make the same mistakes Trump made,” says Elana Sztokman, vice chair for media relations and policy for Democrats Abroad in Israel.

“That wasn’t sound foreign policy. Biden is very strong on restoring the idea of Israel as a bipartisan issue. It’s a priority for him.”

“I think he’ll stay out of it,” Oren agrees. “He may adopt policies that will make things maybe a bit more difficult for Netanyahu, like rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. That’ll definitely affect the elections. Netanyahu’s adversaries would in that case say ‘you failed.’ But Biden won’t do it because of that, but just because it’s his policy.”

Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, believes that “many of the people advising [Biden] are champing at the bit” to tip the scales against Netanyahu, “because they did it before, during the Obama administration.”

“I certainly hope they won’t, I hope they’ve learned their lesson and won’t interfere with the elections, but that may be wishful thinking,” Zell says.

Netanyahu may not require any assistance at all. While he does face a tough task in gaining enough seats to form a government, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history currently does not have a clear challenger.

The opposing center-left wing, decimated by in-house fighting and splintered into a handful of small, and even smaller, parties, has yet to produce a candidate to unite and lead the camp, similar to Benny Gantz in 2019.

Gideon Saar, left, welcomes Benny Begin, the son of Likud founder Menachem Begin to his new party (Photo: Courtesy)

Netanyahu’s problems likely will come from within his own right wing. Former Likud lawmaker and prominent politician Gideon Saar last month formed a new party and declared his intention to unseat his former colleague and party boss.

He has since added several Likud lawmakers to his list, and appears poised to nab 20 seats, enough, perhaps, to precipitate Netanyahu’s defeat.

If the prime minister does manage to retain his seat, he’ll face an entirely different landscape on his next trip to Washington.

Netanyahu is “an expert politician and statesman,” Zell said. “I think he recognizes that the playing field has changed, and he has to adjust accordingly. I have every confidence he will be able to gauge the political map accurately and adapt accordingly.”

Zell said that the Israeli leader’s “cordial relations, on a personal level, with Biden” will enable him to establish a working relationship with the administration. “While they disagree fundamentally on policy matters, they seem to have a fairly friendly, amicable relationship. It’s a good start,” he says.

In a message to whomever wins on March 23, Sztokman says: “If they choose to be smart about their relationship with the president, will find the door open to them.”

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