U.S. President Donald Trump (R) embraces Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his remarks at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Call it the March Surprise.
US President Donald Trump’s tweet saying -- just three weeks before the elections -- that it is time for the US to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights is the election gift Netanyahu dreamed of.
All of a sudden the submarines and Blue and White Party allegations that Netanyahu illicitly profited from the deal seem like toy boats in a bathtub. Netanyahu will come to the voter and say, “submarines, schmumbarines, I’ve brought you US recognition that we can stay on the Golan.”
Not only is the gift extremely substantial, but for Netanyahu the timing is impeccable.
Netanyahu is scheduled to leave Sunday for a four day trip to America and will have ample opportunity to thank Trump for his largess, with not one, but two meetings with Trump scheduled. The electoral optics of those meetings -- and the emphasis that will be placed on the Golan recognition -- is exceptionally valuable for the Netanyahu campaign.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced on Wednesday that Netanyahu and Trump will hold a working meeting in the White House on Monday, followed by a dinner on Tuesday evening.
The dinner is unusual, as during most prime ministerial visits to Washington, including ones Netanyahu has already taken under the Trump Administration, the norm is one meeting.
The Trump decision to recognize the Golan now gives Netanyahu a significant boost before the election, but will also also trigger criticism that the US president is blatantly meddling in the Israeli elections.
This will not, however, be be the first time that US presidents will be accused of trying to influence the election outcome.
In 2015, just two weeks before that year’s elections, Netanyahu traveled to the American capital, where he spoke to an enthusiastic AIPAC convention and then, the very next day, spoke to a special joint session of Congress in a move that infuriated president Barack Obama, who saw this as Netanyahu’s effort to meddle in US politics and the raging partisan debate over the Iranian nuclear deal.
Furious over this Netanyahu meddling, Obama refused to meet the prime minister. The White House explained that decision as being dictated by protocol. That refusal, and the optics of the US president shunning Netanyahu, was also meant to send a signal to the Israeli public.
“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” the National Security Spokesman said at the time. “Accordingly, the president will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the US Congress.”
The long standing practice she cited, however, was not that long standing.
For instance, in April 1996, president Bill Clinton invited prime minister Shimon Peres to the White House just a month before the election in which he lost to Netanyahu. In addition, Clinton also choreographed and directed the “Summit of Peacemakers” in Sharm el-Sheikh in March of that year, just after Peres called for an election, in a clear move to help boost Peres.
Clinton admitted last year in a Channel 10 interview that “it would be fair to say” he wanted to help Peres.
“I did try to be helpful to him because I thought he was more supportive of the peace process. And I tried to do it in a way that was consistent with what I believed to be in Israel’s interest,” he said.
Furthermore, in December 2000 – as former veteran US Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller wrote in 2014 – Clinton was prepared to fly to Israel to broker an agreement between prime minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, “not least in order to help Barak defeat Ariel Sharon in elections scheduled for February 2001. But the deal foundered and Barak lost.”
Another example of US presidential interference came in March 1992, when George H.W. Bush announced that he would not approve $10 billion in long-sought housing guarantees to Israel to help absorb immigrants pouring in from the former Soviet Union unless Yitzhak Shamir froze construction in the settlements.
Elections were held three months later, Shamir lost to Yitzhak Rabin, and two months later the administration signed an agreement with Israel for the loan guarantees.
Trump, therefore, will not be the first president whose actions are designed to impact how the Israeli public votes. What is striking about the move -- and perhaps in keeping with the president’s style -- is that it is so unsubtle.
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