Trump predicts Israeli election ‘going to be close’

US president, who has featured prominently in Netanyahu’s campaign, says ‘big’ vote in Israel appears to be a toss-up

President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a White House ceremony, Sept. 9, 2019. The Anti-Defamation League's CEO has accused Trump of "cynically using the Jewish people and the State of Israel as a shield.” (Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA)
President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a White House ceremony, Sept. 9, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA)

US President Donald Trump on Monday predicted a close Israeli election, as his ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeks to retain power in a neck-and-neck race.

“Big election tomorrow in Israel,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “It’s going to be close… it’s a 50/50 election.”

Israel is holding its second election in five months on Tuesday, with Netanyahu battling for his political survival.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, came close to losing power following April’s election when he failed to form a coalition.

Rather than risk having President Reuven Rivlin give someone else the opportunity to form a government, Netanyahu, who faces indictment on corruption charges in the coming months pending a hearing, opted for a second election instead when he called on the Knesset to dissolve itself.

Final voting polls released Friday indicated another tight race between Netanyahu’s Likud and the centrist Blue and White faction led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz, and a repeat stalemate cannot be ruled out.

The poll is expected to once again amount largely to a referendum on Netanyahu.

The US president has featured prominently in Netanyahu’s election campaign, with Likud plastering up billboards across the country of Trump and Netanyahu shaking hands.

An Orthodox man walks past an election poster in Jerusalem for the ruling Likud party showing US President Donald Trump (L) shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, September 16, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The two leaders spoke by phone on Saturday, after which Trump tweeted that he talked with Netanyahu about a potential defense pact between the countries.

“I look forward to continuing those discussions after the Israeli Elections when we meet at the United Nations later this month,” Trump said, in a comment that was interpreted in Israel as indicating his hope that Netanyahu will win the elections on Tuesday.

The two militaries already cooperate closely, sharing intelligence, holding joint drills and collaborating on defense on a regular basis. But a pact would deepen each side’s commitment to the other and potentially add new obligations.

Any potential defense pact is seen as highly controversial with the Israeli defense establishment, with officials concerned an accord on tighter defense cooperation could tie the hands of the Israeli military in certain undertakings, or at the very least limit its freedom to act independently.

US President Donald Trump, right, and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Just two weeks before the April election, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in a major shift in US policy. And a day before the vote, the administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization — another win for Netanyahu.

Following Netanyahu’s failure to assemble a ruling majority after April’s election, Trump hailed the prime minister as a “great guy” and said it was “too bad” Israelis were again going to the polls.

Despite their close ties, Netanyahu has issued warnings ahead of the release of Trump’s long-awaited plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is supposed to come out some time after the elections.

“Who will be able to negotiate with President Trump? The other [candidates] won’t be able to stand against US pressure,” Netanyahu told Army Radio on Sunday, claiming that he withstood “immense pressure” from the Clinton and Obama administrations to halt settlement construction.

Netanyahu has also announced he intends to annex the Jordan Valley area — about 25% of the West Bank — if he forms the next coalition, saying the diplomatic conditions for such a move have “ripened.” The US did not publicly object to that plan when he unveiled it last Tuesday. He has also said he intends to annex all West Bank settlements and other “vital” areas, but that he would do so in coordination with the Trump administration.

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