Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was scheduled to leave Thursday night for Brazil and a meeting with President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, loves these trips abroad – and not for the reasons his detractors maintain.
No, he’s not going on vacation, looking to visit new and exotic sites, or hoping to eat at a three-star Michelin restaurant on the taxpayer’s shekel. He loves these trips because they allow him to do what he does best: represent Israel on the world stage; give speeches; hobnob with the powerful and influential.
Yet his trip to Brazil is somewhat of a mixed blessing. On the down side, the timing is problematic. In an election year, no candidate wants to be confined to an airplane for 15 hours at a time and out of the news cycle.
Nor does any candidate relish being thousands of miles away from the political action. This is one of the reasons Netanyahu may very well cut short his planned five-day trip, and not make it to Bolsonaro’s inauguration in Brasilia on Tuesday as originally planned.
But there is definitely an upside for Netanyahu as well, especially since this is yet another in a long list of trips he has made that will be prefaced in numerous news accounts by the phrase “the first visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister.”
Previous trips to Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Lithuania have also all carried that singular distinction. And one thing is certain, Netanyahu’s photographers and video team will be sure to capture key moments during this trip to use generously in the upcoming campaign.
For every photo his opponents will use in their campaigns of Netanyahu climbing out of a submarine or opening a bottle of champagne as not-too-subtle reminders of the corruption allegations against him, he will counter with a picture of his own of him meeting Bolsonaro; for every ad directly referring to Cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000, he will counter with photos of visits to far-flung locales where no Israeli prime minister dared tread before.
This is the Netanyahu that his strategists will want out front and featured prominently throughout the campaign: the statesman, the world leader, the well-spoken man with a wealth of experience who, because of that experience, can keep the terrorists off your streets and your kids safe.
And this is also one reason that an April 9 election date fits Netanyahu like a glove.
Election Day 2019 will come just two weeks after the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington; and that conference, and a meeting with US President Donald Trump that Netanyahu’s team is certainly going to do everything possible to set up, are perfect background props just before Israelis cast their ballots.
Consider the optics: here is Netanyahu being given a raucous welcome by some 18,000 people at the AIPAC conference, there is Netanyahu being greeted warmly by Trump in the Oval Office.
THIS WILL not be the first time that Netanyahu, or other Israeli prime ministers, used Washington as a campaign backdrop. Nor will it be the first time that US presidents – with various levels of subtlety – make it clear who their preferred candidate is.
Netanyahu has been blamed for unabashedly supporting Mitt Romney and interfering in the 2012 US presidential race against Barack Obama. But let’s be honest: The US interferes in campaigns here, and Israeli prime ministers often invite that interference, at least if they think it will help their reelection efforts.
In 2015, just two weeks before the Israeli election, 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 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 did some meddling of his own, and refused to meet the prime minister while he was in Washington. A high-profile snub by a US president is not generally believed to be something good for an Israeli prime ministerial candidate.
Bernadette Meehan, who was the National Security Council spokeswoman, explained Obama’s decision as being dictated by protocol.
“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,” she 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 only problem with that explanation is that the practice and principle cited were not all that “long-standing.”
In April 1996, for instance, president Bill Clinton invited prime minister Shimon Peres to the White House just a month before the election in which he barely lost to Netanyahu. Clinton’s meddling during that election was epic, and in addition to that White House invitation, he also choreographed and directed the “Summit of Peacemakers” in Sharm e-Sheikh in March of that year, just after Peres called for an election, in a barely veiled move to boost Peres’s chances at a time of raging Palestinian terrorism inside Israel.
Earlier this year, Clinton admitted openly that he was trying to tip the election in Peres’s favor, telling Channel 10 in a candid interview that “it would be fair to say” that 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.
And Clinton’s efforts to sway an election were not confined to 1996. Consider what former veteran US Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller, who worked in the Clinton administration, wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast in 2014 called “The inside story of US meddling in Israel’s elections.”
“Indeed in what was a true Hail Mary pass,” Miller wrote, “in December 2000, a month before his term ran out, the president [Clinton] was prepared to fly to Israel to broker an agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader 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 this type of interference happened eight years earlier, under a Republican president, George H.W. Bush. In March 1992, 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, and Shamir lost to Yitzhak Rabin.
“Two months after Rabin’s victory, the new prime minister signed an agreement with president Bush for the loan guarantees,” wrote Miller, who also worked in the Bush administration. “Did US actions help defeat Shamir? You bet they did. The perception that Shamir had mismanaged Israel’s ties with the US hurt him badly. And the Bush administration helped orchestrate that.”
WHICH IS all instructive in looking at Trump. How will he decide to “meddle” in these upcoming elections?
If Trump meets with Netanyahu during his trip to Washington in March, likely to be Netanyahu’s last journey abroad before the elections, critics will accuse him of trying to sway the Israeli public, since a picture that shows a closeness in US-Israel ties plays well with the local electorate. If he doesn’t meet Netanyahu, he will also be accused of meddling – Obama style – by denying Netanyahu that photo just before the vote.
And all that is nothing compared to the criticism Trump will come under if, as expected, he delays the rollout of his long-awaited blueprint for Mideast peace yet again, this time until after April 9.
Presenting the plan now, before the election, would give Netanyahu opponents on the Right ammunition to be used against him in the campaign, since the prime minister will not be able to turn down the plan – even if it calls for concessions by Israel – because of what Trump has done regarding Iran, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and changing the tone on Israel emanating from Washington.
And presenting the plan now would not only be a gift to Netanyahu’s opponents on the Right, it would also be a godsend for someone like Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who would use it to set himself apart from Netanyahu on the peace process. While Netanyahu would likely say “yes, but,” to the plan, Lapid would probably accept it with both hands and try to turn the campaign into a referendum on its merits.
In other words, if Trump does not present the plan before April 9, he could be accused of trying to do Netanyahu a favor. But if he does present it before then, he could also be accused of meddling, this time against Netanyahu.
While the latter scenario – that Trump would do something that would actively harm a man with whom he seems to have such a good relationship – seems far-fetched, during the coming months before the balloting every US action on Israel will be viewed through the prism of whether it is an attempt to sway the elections. Why? Simple – because of past precedent.