Can Netanyahu win the election without antagonizing Biden? - analysis

To do so would risk the long term objective of a strong working relationship with the new US president, for the short term goal of winning a few votes.

US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: ANDREW HARNIK/YOAV DUDUKEVITCH/REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The coronavirus struck, four Arab states normalized ties with Israel, and Joe Biden defeated US president Donald Trump in the year that will have passed since the last election on March 2, 2020, to the expected date of the next one on March 23, 2021.
Those are three momentous events that will force campaign operatives in each of the major parties to readjust their campaign strategy and messaging before the next election. It will be impossible just to take off the shelf and recycle the same messages and themes of the three previous campaigns, even though only two years will have separated the upcoming election from the first one in this seemingly endless cycle of elections dating back to April 9, 2019.
Messages that may have worked in 2019 may no longer be relevant, such as highlighting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump, and new messages will need to be rolled out to take into consideration COVID-19 and the New Middle East.
In doing that, in creating new messaging, there is one thing that all the parties, but especially the Likud, need to keep in mind as Israel goes to the polls with Biden sitting in the Oval Office: You don’t want to win the premiership in Jerusalem but gratuitously antagonize the new US president in the process.
What does that mean?
It means not just dusting off an old campaign advertisement that was used in March 2019 and recycling it this time around.  That ad,  which Netanyahu placed on his Facebook and Twitter feeds at the time, featured footage of him sitting in the Oval Office in 2011 and “lecturing” president Barack Obama on why Israel cannot return to the 1967 lines.
That meeting came shortly after Obama delivered his first speech on the Middle East following the “Arab Spring” and infuriated Netanyahu by breaking with past US declarations and using the 1967 lines as the baseline for a future agreement with the Palestinians.
At the photo op that followed the tense meeting, Netanyahu, with the cameras whirling, “lectured” the president on Jewish and Mideast history.
The footage was taken from a PBS show on Netanyahu entitled “Netanyahu at War,” and the one-minute campaign spot interspersed Netanyahu telling Obama that a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines “was not going to happen,” with top Obama aides at the time – Ben Rhodes and Dennis Ross, as well as New York Times Journalist Peter Baker – saying how unprecedented and uncouth it was for Netanyahu to come into Obama’s house and school him on Mideast history.
“I’ve never seen a foreign leader speak to the president like that, certainly not in public“ said Rhodes. “This is his house,” Baker said of Obama, “and to be lectured in his office, rankles.”
And Ross said that White House chief of staff Bill Daley was standing next to him saying, “outrageous, outrageous.” The ad ended with a deep voiced narrator saying “Netanyahu. Right-wing. Strong.”
This fit in well with the campaign’s key themes: That Netanyahu had forged tremendous relationships with world leaders from Trump to Putin, Modi to Bolsonaro, and that Israel needed a strong, experienced leader not easily intimidated by pressure.
Going into the White House telling Obama exactly how things really are – even as the president glowered with a clenched jaw – conveyed that message: Netanyahu can stand up for Israel’s interests and withstand pressure, even atomic pressure like that applied by Obama.
Now, with Biden and his advisers saying they want to re-enter the Iranian nuclear deal, Likud strategists may be tempted to build a campaign around the theme that only Netanyahu can stand up to the new US president who wants to rejoin the Iran deal, and that only he can go toe-to-toe with Biden if necessary, just as he did with Obama. One could imagine how footage from that 2011 Oval Office meeting could be used again in the coming weeks to convey that message.
But to do so would be a mistake, risking the long term objective of a strong working relationship with the new US president, for the short term goal of winning a few votes.
Though the election campaign advertisements are meant for internal Israeli consumption, Israelis will not be the only ones watching them.  As such, there is a need to be careful in the messaging and to find a way to portray what it means to be “steadfast” and “strong”  without going after the previous US administration, especially since Biden, and many of his key aides, were part of that administration. Now is not the time to flaunt the differences with the previous Democratic administration, or underline the strained relationship with Obama and present it as a badge of honor.
That may have been acceptable with Trump in the White House, but the times have changed.
With Trump on his way out of the White House, Netanyahu will not be able to use his strong relationship with the president as a selling point, and it would be a mistake to compensate for that loss by highlighting – as he once did to win votes – his rocky relationship with Obama. That could very well antagonize key figures in Washington whom Israel has no interest in antagonizing. There will be life after the expected March 23 election and a need to work closely with the Biden administration. The campaigns need to internalize that.