Five Things to Know This Week: Bibi, Bipartisanship and Israeli Elections
1. Can Bibi get along with any future Democratic administration?
For Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dissing Democrats is no longer only a strategic necessity, it has become a political asset. And with the April 9 elections just around the corner, Bibi has begun to openly use this partisan approach toward U.S.-Israel relations in order to reflect a tough guy image he hopes will shore up voters at home.
Last week, Netanyahu turned his 2011 tense meeting with then-president Barack Obama into a political campaign ad. At the time, Netanyahu’s decision to lecture Obama at length about the history of the Jewish people and their connection to the land of Israel while sitting next to him in the Oval Office with TV cameras running was seen as an act of rudeness. But fast forward eight years and that awkward meeting is suddenly an event to be proud of. Netanyahu packaged the photo op with Obama, alongside commentary from journalists and advisers to the president stressing how unusual and blunt his behavior was, as a campaign advertisement aimed at portraying Bibi as a leader who speaks truth to power and who is not deterred even when sitting face to face with the president of the United States.
Netanyahu also has an ad with highlights from his recent visit to the White House in which President Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The same day, at AIPAC, Netanyahu delivered a video speech in which he attacked at length comments made by Democrat Ilhan Omar.
Taken together, all this amounts to a deliberate maneuver by Netanyahu aimed at highlighting a partisan approach to U.S.-Israel relations: Trump and the Republicans are embraced as friends worthy of praise, while Obama and Democrats are depicted in Netanyahu’s world as rivals who should be forcefully countered.
A decade ago, this approach would have been considered short sighted, risky and dangerous. Israel has viewed bipartisanship as a key asset in its relationship with the U.S. and although tensions have always existed, Israeli leaders made a point of ironing them out in private and making sure the public face of Israel is one of a cause greater than any partisan divide.
So why is Bibi breaking with this long standing political maxim?
First, it is always worth keeping in mind the current political context. Netanyahu is locked in a tight race with his rival Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, which is polling strong in the run up to next week’s elections. Bibi’s immediate need is to deal with Gantz. There will be time to fix relations with the Democrats after April 9. Until then, it makes political sense for Netanyahu to position himself as a visionary leader who took an unpopular position when confronting Obama and the Dems, only to be vindicated by history.
There’s also a longer-term consideration. If Netanyahu had taken some time to listen to Democratic leaders at the AIPAC conference, he could easily draw the conclusion that the Democratic mainstream remains staunchly pro-Israel. They may not like Bibi or his conduct, and they probably don’t agree with his policies, but that won’t impact their basic pro-Israel posture.
Furthermore, Netanyahu’s calculation may very well be that at the end of the day, national strategy will overwhelm personal sentiments. In other words, America, regardless of whether it is led by Republicans and Democrats, still has no closer ally in the Middle East than Israel and this situation is not about to change in the near future. Foreign aid, military cooperation and diplomatic backing will not go away just because Democrats can’t stand the way the Israeli leader treated them, and so for this Israeli leader, it may be a sign that he can pretty much do whatever he wants to the Dems and the basics of the relationship will remain untouched.
And one more reason why Netanyahu doesn’t care much about mistreating the Democrats: By the time they come back to power, which would be in 2020 at the earliest, Bibi may have already stepped down from the Israeli political scene. His corruption cases could be decided by the end of 2019;t even if he wins these elections, it is not unlikely that he will resign by then to deal with his legal issues.
2. Israeli elections are a week away
Rhetoric is already reaching a boiling point, and expect things to only get worse in the week to come. Here are a couple of pieces of advice for those watching the elections from here:
First, follow public opinion polls, but don’t take them too seriously. Remember the 2016 elections in the U.S. and what pollsters had to say? They’re just as prone to mistakes in Israel, and even more so because of the multi-party system.
Also, keep in mind that at this point of the race, it’s all personal. And only personal. The last week will be devoted to character attacks and last-minute gimmicks. There will be little discussion, if any, about policy, ideology, or plans for the future.
3. What to look for on election day?
Watchers in the U.S. can expect to see reliable exit polls and the beginning of official returns by Tuesday afternoon.
But it will be important to keep in mind that these results should be interpreted in a different way than those you might see on election day in America. For Israeli elections, watch for future coalitions, not for the party with the largest number of seats. The fact that Netanyahu or Gantz will emerge with the most votes does not necessarily make them the next prime minister.
Also, be prepared to wait a few weeks. That’s the time forming a new coalition can take and with these elections expected to be tight, it won’t be over until it’s over, after what could be weeks of negotiations.
And pay attention to the small parties on the right and center-left. With a threshold of 3.25%, some of the smaller parties won’t make the cut. This means votes for their list will be lost and that could shift the balance between the right and center blocs.
4. Could Jared hold the key to Israel’s next coalition?
Here’s the scenario we’ll be hearing a lot about after Tuesday’s elections:
Both major parties, Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, emerge with more or less the same number of seats. It’s coalition building time, and then Jared Kushner steps in and presents his much-awaited “deal of the century” plan for Middle East peace. Bibi faces the choice between going for a right-wing coalition, his natural base of support, but having to reject Kushner’s plan since his partners will hear nothing of it, or turning to Gantz for a national unity government that will work to pursue peace based on the American plan.
Seemingly, this could mean Kushner holds the key to the shape of Israel’s next government. In practice, however, this is an unlikely scenario: Gantz has said he will not sit in Bibi’s coalition because of the prime minister’s pending corruption charges, Netanyahu feels more at home with his right-wing partners, and if playing nice to Trump and his son-in-law is what matters, Netanyahu can always respond to Kushner’s plan with a classic, “yes, but…” which will lead to months of talks with no deal at the end of the road. This can be done even with a right-wing coalition and will be especially easy for Netanyahu, who has mastered the art of avoiding American-sponsored peace plans many times in the past.
5. Why no Trump bump for Bibi?
Polling numbers are pretty steady for Netanyahu’s Likud, which is hovering around the 28-30 seat marker for weeks. So where’s the bump Bibi should have gotten after standing next to Trump in the White House and receiving the gift of American recognition in Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights wrapped in a warm White House reception and loads of praise from the leader of the free world?
The answer is that Bibi may have maxed out on the amount of electoral profit he can make from a friendly president at the White House. Trump and his positions on Israel have allowed Netanyahu to position himself as the only statesman in the race and as the only politician holding the key to the heart of the leader of the free world. That has been true for a while, and the Golan Heights declaration won’t win over any new voters. It can, however, help reinforce Netanyahu’s standing with loyal Likudniks who otherwise could have been reluctant to vote for Bibi again because of his alleged corruption scandals.
Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO.