How does Trump stump for Netanyahu from the Oval Office?

Netanyahu and Trump are both eyeing pre-election support from the other when the Israeli leader comes to Washington later this month.

By
March 15, 2019 17:10
PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington. (Brian Snyder/Reuters). (photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)

 
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‘My name is Donald Trump, and I’m a big fan of Israel,” the then-business tycoon and reality television star said in a campaign ad on behalf of Benjamin Netanyahu that came out a week before the January 22, 2013, elections.

Trump was some four years away from being sworn in as US president, and was identified in the video simply as “entrepreneur.” Netanyahu was running for reelection.

“And frankly, a strong prime minister is a strong Israel, and you truly have a great prime minister in Benjamin Netanyahu – there’s nobody like him,” Trump said, looking squarely into the camera, his words subtitled in Hebrew.

“He’s a winner, he’s highly respected, he’s highly thought of by all, and people really do have great, great respect for what’s happening in Israel. So vote for Benjamin, terrific guy, terrific leader, great for Israel.”

That was then. Trump, holding no public office, was free to endorse and campaign for whomever he desired.

Barack Obama, who was president at the time, did not have that same luxury, however. As a sitting president, he could not be so blunt in his messaging to the Israeli public.

Rather than just come out and say out front not to vote for Netanyahu – with whom he had developed what many characterized as a “rocky” and “dysfunctional” relationship – Obama got his message across through White House leaks describing how bad the relationship was, and how US-Israel ties were either on the verge of crisis or already in full-crisis mode.

The same day that Trump’s video was released, US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a column for Bloomberg in which he quoted Obama as saying that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”

The damning column, which aides close to Netanyahu viewed as a presidential attempt to interfere in the elections, read: “With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation. And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah – one that alienates even the affections of the US, its last steadfast friend – it won’t survive.”

Goldberg wrote that Obama “seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.”

The Goldberg column featured prominently the next day in Israeli media, with front-page headlines talking about “Obama’s revenge” and claiming this was the president’s way of paying Netanyahu back for his perceived backing of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 US election.

THE APPEARANCE, on the same day in January 2013, of Trump’s campaign video for Netanyahu and Goldberg’s column illustrates two points: Trump really likes Netanyahu, and US presidents – through various ways and means – try to influence the thinking of the Israeli voter.

So now, with Trump as president – and nothing to indicate that his views of Netanyahu have changed since those he expressed so clearly in 2013 – how does he stump for Netanyahu within the boundaries of his current office?

And, perhaps even more importantly, what will he expect in return?

Regarding how Trump shows political support for Netanyahu, we have already seen some indications. The first was his decision to delay the rollout of his long-awaited blueprint for peace.


Had Trump wanted to make things difficult for Netanyahu, he could have publicized the plan – which White House officials have acknowledged will demand concessions from both sides – before the voting.

Had he done so, the plan itself would have become the centerpiece of the election, and the elections would have turned into a referendum on it.

Netanyahu, because of Trump’s actions on Jerusalem and Iran, will find it difficult to say “no” to anything Trump puts forward. As a result, at the very least he would have to say that he will consider some of the concessions that are expected to appear in the plan. But going to the polls having nodded to concessions, even if only so slightly, is not a Likud recipe for success and would allow the parties on Netanyahu’s right to siphon off votes from his base.

In addition to doing Netanyahu a favor by delaying the release of the “deal of the century,” Trump has also already given some verbal support to Netanyahu. For instance, last month in Vietnam, after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he characterized the prime minister as “tough, smart, strong.”

Prepare for similar words when he meets Netanyahu in the White House in about 10 days.

AFTER THEN-defense minister Avigdor Liberman quit the government in November to protest what he viewed as its weak policies in Gaza, and it became clear the country was headed to early elections, there was much speculation about when the elections would be held, with dates in late February, mid-March or May – around Independence Day – likely candidates for a variety of reasons, ranging from the weather to the Jewish holiday season to the Eurovision Song Contest to Netanyahu wanting to wait until after he delivers speeches on Remembrance Day and Independence Day.

One date mistakenly overlooked was March 24, the beginning of the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. It should have been clear to all that Netanyahu would want to wait until after that conference before going to the polls, because that conference will afford him the opportunity to be in Washington and therefore be able to meet the president. And it will also give him the chance to address nearly 20,000 cheering AIPAC conference-goers.

There are no better optics for Netanyahu, going into an election, than to receive a raucous ovation at AIPAC, followed by – or preceded by, depending on scheduling – a bear hug from the president.

Despite criticism, among US supporters, of Netanyahu’s work to forge an alliance between Bayit Yehudi and the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party, and despite his recent controversial comments about Israel being the nation-state of only the Jewish people, he is sure to be greeted with a resounding ovation at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center by AIPAC conference participants.

Some folks might not give him a standing ovation, others might sit on their hands throughout his speech, and there may even be a few hisses scattered through the huge crowd, but they will be drowned out by thousands more who will cheer Netanyahu enthusiastically. That is what matters to Netanyahu, and that is what will be seen and heard by the Israeli public.

And as far as Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump, the big question there is what will he get from the US president that he can cash in on at the polls. Will he just get a warm embrace – something Obama refused to give him when he landed in Washington two weeks before the 2015 elections to address both AIPAC and the US Congress – or will the president give him a bigger preelection gift?

Netanyahu made his wish list clear during a visit this week by Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina.

Netanyahu helicoptered along with Graham to the Golan Heights and, once on the strategic plateau, said he would like an American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the area.

Graham pledged to work for the move, saying that Israel cannot be “safe, secure and prosperous” unless it has the Golan, and adding later that there was no reason this recognition could not be done before the elections.

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