There were years when Israelis looked at the US elections with concern and optimism. In 2008, for example, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told The Jerusalem Post that George W. Bush would not leave office with Iran still in possession of a viable nuclear program.
“The bottom line is that President Bush hasn’t changed his opinion regarding the danger posed by Iran. And I haven’t changed my impression regarding President Bush’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons,” Olmert said on the eve of Bush’s visit to Israel in the beginning of 2008.
A few months later, as the presidential race was nearing the end, John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, predicted that Israel would attack Iran before the next president took office. The optimal strike window, he claimed, would be between the November 4th elections and the January 20th inauguration.
Both were wrong. Bush and Olmert ended their terms with Iran still on its way to becoming a nuclear power.
On the surface, Tuesday’s presidential elections do not seem to have such dire consequences for Israel. The nuclear deal signed last year set Iran’s program back by at least a decade and top American officials admit that the possibility of achieving major progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front is extremely unlikely, even as Barack Obama is reportedly mulling some sort of international initiative in his final days in office.
Nevertheless, these elections are in fact dramatic for Israel.
Here is why.
Since the 1960s, when the Israeli-US alliance moved up a notch after the French imposed their embargo on the IDF, Israel’s diplomatic and military power have been derived from three primary sources.
The first is the country’s conventional military – the IDF.
While other countries surrounding Israel built up formidable armies, the IDF overtook them with its superior air force, navy, ground forces and missile systems. Still today, the IDF is considered one of the most powerful and technologically advanced militaries in the world.
The second source is the country’s purported nuclear program.
While Israel continues to maintain a policy of ambiguity on whether it has or does not have nuclear weapons, the fact that the entire world believes it does possess them creates an amazing level of strength.
Just this past week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the importance of Israel’s nuclear reactor near Dimona during the unveiling of Shimon Peres’s tombstone.
“Only when I became prime minister and entered the nuclear facility did I understand its importance for Israel’s security,” Netanyahu said at the Mount Herzl ceremony.
This creates deterrence and provides the country with invaluable diplomatic currency.
The third source, and just as important as the previous two, is Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States, the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy for most of the last 68 years.
It is the US which defends Israel in international forums like the United Nations, UNESCO and the IAEA. It is the US which sells Israel some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world, like the F-35 stealth Joint Strike Fighter, and it is the US which recently signed a 10-year $38 billion military aid package with the Jewish state.
While this material and diplomatic support is important and even critical for Israel, there is something deeper that Israel needs when it comes to its relationship with the US – for America to be strong. If America is strong, Israel is strong.
If America is perceived as weak, Israel is perceived as weak.
That is why for Israel, these elections are vital for efforts being made to restore a semblance of order in the region.
The sense in Israel and across the wider region is that under Obama, the US distanced itself from direct involvement in the region, preferring to lead from behind instead of from the front.
When the US drew red lines in Syria, for example, it never stuck to them, leaving the country wide open for Russia to sweep in and establish a presence not seen in the Middle East since the Soviet Union left Egypt on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. This has presented Israel with an unprecedented set of challenges, including having its vaunted air force threatened by Russian air defense systems.
While Netanyahu and his staff pride themselves in establishing strong ties with moderate Sunni states throughout the Gulf in recent years, the real reason these countries are warming up to Israel is because they are disappointed with Washington. Egypt, for example, looked to the US for support throughout the Arab Spring, but instead got turned off by Obama’s handling of the transition of power from Hosni Mubarak to Mohamed Morsi and then to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The controversial Iran deal, opposed by Israel and many of the Sunni states, also brought Israel closer to the Gulf, enabling unprecedented diplomatic and security exchanges.
A new American diplomatic push in the region, alongside increased involvement, could cause some of these countries to decide to wean off from their ties with Israel. Nevertheless, there is an advantage for Israel in once again having a strong and involved America playing a leading role in stabilizing the region and empowering its moderate neighbors.
Whoever is elected on Tuesday will face numerous challenges ahead. First and foremost, they will be working to unite a fragmented America and polarized political system.
Making American power reverberate again throughout the Middle East should also be on the winner’s list of priorities.
It will be for Israel.
There was something extremely disconcerting watching Channel 2 News on Saturday night. Dana Weiss, the news anchor, interviewed David Bitan, a Likud MK, chairman of the ruling coalition and a Netanyahu crony.
“The broadcasting corporation has been hijacked by left-wingers,” Bitan said. “They appointed Amsterdam, or something like that, as head of the economic desk,” Bitan added. “He tweeted something against the prime minister.
There is a trend there.”
Well, the first issue is that there is no one called “Amsterdam” who works at the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation.
Bitan was apparently referring to Shaul Amsterdamski, formerly a senior writer at Calcalist, Yediot Aharonot
’s business paper. Amsterdamski is one of the country’s leading business reporters and has written numerous exposes on Israel’s pension system and other commercial enterprises.
While we can forgive Bitan for not getting Amsterdamski’s name right on national TV, what makes me uncomfortable is what he revealed during the interview – the real reason why he and Netanyahu want to shut the IBC down.
Their desire to shut down the IBC is not the result of a fundamental or principled debate over the question of whether Israel should or should not have public broadcasting. It also has nothing to do with budget constraints, what would be a legitimate concern.
They want to shut down the IBC because they are unhappy with the people who the corporation has hired. These reporters’ alleged politics are not suitable for the prime minister and his party. As Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev reportedly asked at a tempestuous cabinet meeting in July: What is the point of the new corporation “if we don’t control it?” This is dangerous. Since its inception, Israel has prided itself as being the only country in the Middle East with a fair and free press, a place where the media can openly criticize the government without fear of political retribution. What Bitan hinted at sets a very dangerous precedent.
There is also something unsettling with the government’s obsession over media control. In 2015, Netanyahu dissolved the coalition and decided to take the country to elections over a bill that would have prevented the continued free distribution of Israel Hayom, a newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson and openly supportive of Netanyahu. Now, another coalition crisis is brewing over the prime minister’s intention to close the IBC.
This is strange considering the real and critical challenges this government faces, which deserve serious attention.
Take the Amona outpost as an example. The government had been given a deadline in December to evacuate the outpost which the High Court ruled had been built on private Palestinian land. Instead of upholding the court’s decision and seeking countless delays, the government went back to the court this week and asked for another extension to try and find a solution that would prevent an evacuation.
Then there is the Western Wall. In January, the government passed a historic decision to establish a third egalitarian plaza at the Kotel. But then, the haredi parties threatened to topple the government and the government froze the plans, setting the stage for what is quickly turning into an unprecedented crisis between the Jews of the world and the Jewish state.
Apparently, the IBC is more important than Israeli-Diaspora ties (the Kotel) and the rule of law (Amona).
However, Netanyahu and Bitan can gang up on the media since they know how little the public approves of them via polls throughout the country. In one recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 32.8 percent of Israelis said they trust the media, placing it lower than the government, the Knesset and the National Insurance Institute.
This low approval rating allows Bitan and Netanyahu to attack the press without paying a political price. Israel’s enemies used to be the Palestinians and the Iranians. Now it is the press that appears to be hostile and needs to be controlled.
The Israeli public deserves better. The press is not meant to be controlled by any single entity. Yes, there are some papers that have an obsession with attacking Netanyahu unjustifiably, but there are others that can’t bring themselves to publish a word of criticism about him.
But that is the beauty of Israel’s democracy. It is a mosaic of opinions and voices. Sometimes the press agrees with the government and sometimes it doesn’t. But its job is not to represent the Prime Minister’s Office or the Knesset.
It is supposed to be a watchdog of democracy and it is time our politicians understood that.
Oh, and I almost forgot – Way to go Cubbies!!