Editor's Notes: Why are the election campaigns moving to Washington?

By
March 21, 2019 21:26
Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz (R)

Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Benny Gantz (R). (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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"My heart is in the East, and I am at the edge of the West."

Written in the 11th century by Yehuda Halevy, the famous Spanish physician, poet and philosopher, this poetic clause will be very much on the minds of Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz over the next few days.

Both candidates for prime minister will travel to Washington to appear at the AIPAC Policy Conference, and while they might physically be in the United States speaking before an audience of mostly American Jews, their hearts will be back East in Israel, where they face an election that could make Gantz’s or break Netanyahu’s career.

Netanyahu is fighting for political survival and is trying to stave off another criminal investigation about the submarines. Gantz is fighting to defeat a four-term powerful prime minister and to move the ongoing political debate away from his hacked cellphone and whatever information might be in the hands of the Iranians right now.

But if their hearts are back in Israel, why are they even going to AIPAC? The reasons vary.

Netanyahu is the prime minister and he goes every year to speak before the delegates and to meet the president of the United States. This year’s trip is reminiscent of March 2015, when he spoke not just at AIPAC but also before the US Congress just weeks before Israel’s previous general elections.

Gantz wants to be prime minister and feels that he needs to show Israelis that he can do what Netanyahu does: fly to Washington, speak English, and receive a standing ovation from a large foreign audience.

What makes events like this unique is that the message each politician will come with will likely be mostly identical to the other. Gantz will not attack a sitting Israeli prime minister while on a foreign stage. Take into account that the audience at AIPAC is not just pro-Israel, but also largely pro-Netanyahu. Attacking him like he does back home would be a mistake.

So what message will Gantz arrive with, and how will he distinguish himself from Netanyahu? Judging by his last two major speeches – his inaugural address in late January and his speech at the Munich Security Conference in mid-February – that won’t be easy.

In both speeches he pretty much sounded like his political rivals. His speech in January seemed like a compilation of comments and statements Yair Lapid had made as leader of Yesh Atid in recent years, and in Munich, he spoke tough on Iran – like Netanyahu – and went so far as to say that there is no daylight between him and the prime minister when it comes to the threat the Islamic Republic poses to the State of Israel.

In Washington, Gantz will try to differentiate himself in two ways: first by presenting a vision for a different Israel than the one currently led by Netanyahu, and second, by focusing a significant portion of his speech on the importance of healing the Israeli-Diaspora rift and specifically mending the divide between Israel and the Democratic Party.

While he is unlikely to outwardly attack Netanyahu, he will try to impress upon the local audience, as well as on the Israelis watching back home, that Israeli-American ties can be different, and that Jews in the Diaspora – turned off from Israel due to the controversy over the egalitarian section of the Western Wall or the deadlock with the Palestinians – can, under his leadership, return to loving Israel once again.

That is a bit ambitious, but Gantz seems to think it is worth the try. His calculation is simple: while there is something to be said about staying in Israel and using his time for stump speeches in a few towns on Sunday and another few on Monday, he seems to believe that a speech at AIPAC is more important.

That is because he is trying to frame the election around one question: Who is better suited to serve as prime minister, him or Netanyahu? Appearing at AIPAC is meant to show the Israeli electorate that he can look like a prime minister and speak like a prime minister, and that Netanyahu is not the only Israeli politician who can wow an American audience.


GANTZ’S SPEECH on Monday will take place around the same time as Netanyahu heads to the Oval Office for a meeting with Donald Trump, which could end up completely overshadowing the Blue and White leader’s address.

Imagine a scenario – as Netanyahu seems to be pushing – that Trump recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights during the White House meeting. That would not only push Gantz’s visit off of page 1, but would also give Netanyahu a major boost in the polls. Not only can Netanyahu get Trump to move the embassy to Jerusalem, the Likud will say, but he can also get America to recognize Israeli control over the Golan. To continue to reap these strategic fruits, they will argue, Netanyahu needs to remain in office.

Not that Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump does not come with some risks - albeit minimal - of its own. It does. Take, for example, a scenario that during the beginning of their sit down in the Oval Office – the part when the media is still there – Trump tells Netanyahu that he will be unveiling his peace plan soon, and that Israel will need to make some serious concessions, including on Jerusalem.

If that happens, how Netanyahu responds could have a ripple effect on the elections. If he starts to lecture Trump – like he famously did to Barack Obama in 2011 – his political adversaries could accuse him of undermining ties with the US. If he says to Trump that he is open to such proposals, he makes himself vulnerable to attacks from the Right in Israel.

There is no doubt that Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, is working hard to ensure that nothing of this sort happens, but as the world has come to see over the last two-and-a-half years, it is very difficult to predict what the most unpredictable president will do. Netanyahu needs this visit to go off without a hiccup and Dermer knows that.

The question is what will happen after the elections, and whether the administration will still release its so-called “Deal of the Century.” It seems that White House advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman are determined to roll out the plan, but there remain some questions regarding the timing: Should it be after elections but before a new government is formed or after there is a new government in Jerusalem?

There are pros and cons for the candidates in both directions. If the plan is rolled out before there is a government, it could be used by Netanyahu – assuming he is tapped by the president to form the next coalition – to draw Gantz and his Blue and White Party into the government. This would see the establishment of a national unity government that has the potential to create some political stability, putting Netanyahu’s criminal investigations aside.

On the other hand, rolling out the plan before the formation of the government automatically politicizes it and makes the peace proposal seem – to the Israeli public – like an attempt by the Trump administration to interfere in Israel’s post-election governmental process. Even if Trump is already subtly looking to help Netanyahu, this might be a bit over the top.

In addition, it will automatically turn some parts of the public against the deal, which would be a missed opportunity. Based on the little that has come out about the plan, it looks like it is shaping up to be the most sympathetic peace offer ever made to Israel.

No settlers are expected to be evacuated, the IDF will be allowed to remain in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, and only some symbolic parts of Jerusalem will reportedly be offered to the Palestinians. This is in comparison to the eight years Israel dealt with Obama and the peace plans that he spoke about, which included an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines.

Whatever happens in Washington next week, both Netanyahu and Gantz will be thinking about how to avoid mistakes and make sure that they return home safely.

But safety this time won’t cut it. With two weeks left to these elections, both need a boost to win. Will they get it in Washington? We will find out soon.

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