March 23, 2019
Israel’s April election has at times felt like it might be Benjamin Netanyahu’s last. But even as he tries to fend off a string of corruption accusations, the prime minister cannot be counted out. He has survived 13 years in office, and he now has a Trump card up his sleeve.
Netanyahu will use that card on Monday when he arrives in Washington to bask at the White House in the warmth of his relationship with Donald Trump, whose popularity has soared in Israel as it has sagged almost everywhere else in the world.
Even before the Israeli prime minister’s arrival, Trump bestowed an electoral gift, declaring US readiness to endorse Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights, a plateau Israel captured from Syria and occupied more than half a century ago. Accepting the annexation of conquered land is unprecedented in modern US history and runs counter to the founding principles of the United Nations. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was on hand in Jerusalem to celebrate with Netanyahu when Trump tweeted out his decision on Thursday.
Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, helped amplify Netanyahu’s tendency to frame the current political moment as an echo of biblical episodes when the very survival of the Jews was at stake. Asked by an evangelical broadcasting network whether Trump was a latter-day Queen Esther, an ancient heroine celebrated as the saviour of the Jews in this week’s Purim holiday, Pompeo replied: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”
The shared theological – frequently apocalyptic – language, has helped bond an alliance with American evangelicals which is key to Netanyahu’s clout in US politics. Pompeo underlined the symbolism of that coalition by visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Netanyahu, becoming the first senior US official to visit the contested Old City accompanied by an Israeli counterpart.
Coming after the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there, Thursday’s Golan declaration served to boost the central message of Netanyahu’s campaign: that only “King Bibi” could get an American leader to implement hawkish policies on Syria, Iran and the Palestinians that previous US presidents dismissed as catastrophic for Middle East peace.
Giant campaign billboards show Netanyahu and a beaming Trump shaking hands under the words “A Different League”.
Next week, the Israeli election campaign will shift to Washington, as Netanyahu and his opponent, Benny Gantz, make duelling appearances at the pro-Israel US lobby group, Aipac.
But when Gantz makes his speech, Netanyahu will be on screen at the White House, alongside Trump. The president will also host the prime minister at dinner on Tuesday evening.
On Thursday, Trump denied he was providing Netanyahu a formal presidential endorsement, going as far as to claim unfamiliarity with the 9 April elections.
“You can’t say that he is actively involved in the Israeli election,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. “But they support each other politically and rhetorically.”
Wittes pointed out that when Trump was under fire for allowing antisemitism to fester after 11 American Jews were killed by an extremist in a Pittsburgh synagogue, Netanyahu went to his defence.
It is a far cry from the Netanyahu’s frosty relationship with Trump’s predecessor. In 2015, Barack Obama declined to meet with Netanyahu ahead of elections citing non-interference, although it was interpreted at the time as a deliberate snub due to differences over Iran policy and the occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“This is the first time during more than a decade in office that Bibi has a Republican in the White House,” said Daniel Levy, head of the US/Middle East Project thinktank. “Bibi has been all about making this a partisan rather than a bipartisan relationship between two states. It would be surprising if Trump does not reciprocate.”
One of Netanyahu’s campaign themes has been to list the gifts Trump has bestowed on him, which range from the embassy move to the shuttering of Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and closure of the US’s own consulate that serves the Palestinian people.
The US president has also moved towards embracing Israel’s argument that millions of Palestinians should no longer be counted as refugees and therefore lose any claims to land Israel controls. Last year, Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, a move Netanyahu has been pushing for.
One of the major questions hanging over Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is whether the promised recognition of Israel’s possession of the Golan Heights, could lay the groundwork for an even more consequential move: approval of Israeli rule over of the West Bank.
A section in a recent state department report on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas that Israel also captured in the 1967 Middle East war, did not refer to those Palestinian territories as being “occupied” or under “occupation”,. Palestinians fear that the peace plan that Trump administration has said will be unveiled after the Israeli elections, will dispose of basic principles that guided past land-for-peace negotiations.
“Trump is seeking to dismantle the parameters underpinning the peace process until now,” said Khaled Elgindy, non-resident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “To overturn that is pretty radical, especially if you are not replacing it with anything meaningful. What they are doing is legitimising Israeli-made realities on the ground.”
Elgindy added: “if Netanyahu wins, the right are going to be even more emboldened. They are going to say the door is wide open.”