NEW YORK — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long cultivated the image of himself as Mr. Security, but in recent years it has been his diplomatic chops and ability to maneuver through American politics that have become his campaign calling card.
When US president Barack Obama was in the White House, he did not shy from icy Oval Office exchanges and welcomed the portrayal of himself as someone capable of standing up to the “enormous pressure” of a US administration seeking to squeeze Israel on the Palestinian peace process while pursuing a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear crisis. A 2019 Likud campaign ad all but bragged about him “humiliating” the president during a 2011 meeting in Washington in which he “lectured” Obama on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But since Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, Netanyahu has adopted a fawning and obeisant posture, using it to build himself up as the only candidate who knows how to skate around the famously capricious leader, bringing home stocking stuffers along the way, from a US embassy in Jerusalem to normalization with Arab states.
The strategy worked well during the last three election campaigns as he faced off against rivals to the left who would have gotten lumps of coal from Trump at best, in the telling of Netanyahu’s supporters.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) March 28, 2019
Now, he is gearing up for an election campaign in which his main rivals will come from the right side of the political spectrum and the new American president in Joe Biden will be to his left. History would suggest that given the confluence of those two factors, the Likud leader will seek to lead his party like it’s 2015 — adopting a confrontational stance toward the president that will make his rivals out to be lily-livered neophytes willing to sell the country out for an ugly sweater and a picture on Biden’s lap.
But campaign strategists and those intimately familiar with the inner workings of the US-Israeli relationship argue that Netanyahu is unlikely to launch a full-blown campaign demonizing Biden and that doing so in the lead-up to the March election would be ill-advised.
“It takes two to tango, but it also takes two to wrangle,” warned former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren.
“Creating a rift would be a bad way to get started with a Democratic White House and possibly a Democratic Congress,” said Mark Mellman, a political strategist and president of the Democratic Majority for Israel. “I don’t assume that he’ll make that mistake.”
All I want for Christmas is diplomatic achievements
The coming three months will feature a campaign radically different from the ones Netanyahu might have grown accustomed to over the last two years.
Throughout the past three election seasons, analysts — and even members of the Likud campaign — found themselves asking, “What’s Trump going to give this time?” Because with each election, the US president delivered.
Among the gifts Trump left under the tree were invitations for Netanyahu to visit the White House, where he stood next to the US president as he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March 2019 and unveiled a peace plan seen as overwhelmingly favorable to the Jewish state in January 2020; visits to Israel from Trump’s most senior aides who used the opportunity to heap praise on the premier for his leadership. Netanyahu’s chief rival at the time, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, also participated in some of these visits, but his role was dwarfed by the Likud leader in each of them.
Other gestures included a tweet from Trump days before the first election declaring that he had discussed a Mutual Defense Pact with Netanyahu, which he hoped to sign following the parliamentary vote (that agreement was never inked).
A month before the second election, Trump reposted a photo of a Netanyahu campaign billboard towering over Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway. The display showed the Israeli prime minister standing next to the US president under the headline “Netanyahu, in a different league,” with “The Likud” at the bottom.
— Belaaz (@TheBelaaz) February 5, 2019
Biden, on the other hand, will be less likely to fulfill Netanyahu’s wish list or leave any campaign presents.
“In Donald Trump, you had a president who was happy to intervene in the elections of foreign countries in a way that would benefit him personally, which Biden will not do,” Mellman said.
Shlomo Filber, a former Likud campaign manager and current pollster said Netanyahu won’t need Trump in the upcoming election, as he has already snagged enough goodies to campaign on.
He pointed to the four recent normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, struck with Israel, as well as the premier’s efforts to secure millions of vaccine doses that Filber said is putting Israel on track to be the first country to inoculate all of its willing citizens.
“He doesn’t need new achievements,” he claimed.
Both Filber and Oren believe the campaign will focus on domestic issues anyway, as the coronavirus crisis brings economic losses to the fore.
“Once, he was able to say, ‘Only I can deal with the US.’ Now the US is not relevant. There’s no Palestinians, there’s no peace process, there’s no foreign policy focus in the US because they’re also dealing with the coronavirus,” Filber said.
Oren noted that the focus on the pandemic will make any wins on the diplomatic front look like knit socks next to a Playstation 5.
“You had four historic peace treaties in four months, yet the popularity of Netanyahu’s Likud has fallen in polls because Israelis only care today about jobs and the economy. The impact of his relationship with Biden will have a minimal effect,” he said.
“Things may change in three months if Netanyahu succeeds in overcoming the virus hurdle,” Oren said. “If the coronavirus is behind us, then foreign policy will once again become important.”
Don’t go Grinch
Playing up his foreign policy acumen would likely involve making himself into a foil for Biden and tying the incoming president to his old boss. Obama is abysmally unpopular among many Israelis, especially on the right, which will likely be the main battleground for votes this time around.
Netanyahu has indeed already begun picking a fight with Biden before the president-elect has even entered the White House, repeatedly declaring that one of his main foreign policy goals — re-entering the Iran nuclear deal — is misguided.
But going all-in on such a strategy would itself be misguided, if not impossible, most said.
Oren argued that Obama had an interest in making Netanyahu into his rival, but the same dynamic won’t exist this time.
“Obama came after Bibi and sought crisis with Israel… Joe Biden’s not going to do that,” he said.
Martin Indyk, who served as Middle East envoy during the Obama-Biden administration, said Netanyahu would be unwise to pick a fight with the incoming president in an effort to shore up support within the Republican party.
“That would be a misreading of where Biden’s coming from, because he wants to be a conciliator,” Indyk said.
“He wants this to be a time to heal, and he’s going to work with Republicans to try and get legislation passed,” he said, arguing that the president-elect is determined to avoid engaging in divisive politics, “especially on Israel, which is a bipartisan issue.”
Mellman noted that Netanyahu won’t pick a fight with Biden in the campaign, simply because there won’t be time to do so in the two months between Biden’s swearing-in and the March 23 election.
“The opportunity for Bibi to lecture Obama in the Oval Office won’t exist,” he said. “The problems between Bibi and Obama were created over time, but Biden isn’t Obama, and the previous rift is not as relevant.”
He said that any foreign policy focus Netanyahu may pursue would involve vague promises of standing up against world leaders who seek to dictate policy to Israel.
“It’ll have less bite if he can’t be concrete about it, and it’s another area in which he’ll be hobbled in this campaign,” Mellman said. “He’s not going to have Trump to give him gifts, nor an American president he can beat up on.”
Licking at the poll?
Even worse for Netanyahu, the loss of Trump may mean that Netanyahu’s rivals will attempt to use the changing of the guard in Washington to hobble the Likud leader.
Oren suggested that parties to the right of Likud would now have the opportunity to challenge the premier on foreign policy, with Trump out of the picture.
Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope can press Netanyahu “by asking how is it that we’ve had a president who was willing to give us 100% support in our fight against terrorism, and yet we did nothing to remove Hamas or Hezbollah?”
Mellman said Biden’s re-entry onto the scene also provides an opportunity for parties to Netanyahu’s left, such as Yesh Atid. (Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid is a client of Mellman).
While Netanyahu and Trump’s close ties were an extension of already existing bilateral relations, the bromance was strictly a Republican affair, he noted. “The perception among Democrats in America is that Bibi and Trump are aligned, which is very toxic as far as they’re concerned.”
“Other candidates will have the opportunity to suggest that they can better deal with a Democratic administration than Netanyahu can,” he said. “They’ll have a lot of justification for that.”
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