Move over Russia: Trump to begin meddling in Israeli elections

After American peace plan apparently delayed to not hurt Netanyahu's re-election bid, White House may hold state dinner for Israeli premier just weeks ahead of vote.

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the White House in Washington on March 5. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the White House in Washington on March 5.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Twittersphere was set abuzz when the head of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency warned that a foreign country "intends to intervene" via cyber-attacks ahead of elections slated for April 9. Analysts quickly pointed a finger at Russia given the Kremlin's meddling in the 2016 United States presidential vote, the subject of an ongoing legal inquiry that has caused havoc within the American political establishment (thereby playing into Moscow's hand); cast doubts on the efficacy of social media platforms previously considered near-sacrosanct; and contributed to the mainstreaming of perhaps the term-of-the-decade: fake news.
For all the brouhaha, most experts agree that the Jewish state maintains the technological know-how to minimize the impact of similar attempts to influence its political system. As a result, the mass hysteria still sweeping through the U.S. has not materialized in Israel.
Undoubtedly contributing to Israelis' collective shrug of the shoulders is their habituation over the past two decades to foreign intervention in national elections. And while most news outlets last week focused on serial manipulators such as Russia, China and Iran, the fact of the matter is that Israel's most important strategic ally has, historically, been the primary perpetrator with numerous U.S. leaders having injected themselves into the electoral process.
Rumors began circulating about the Trump administration's preference for Netanyahu's re-election when it was announced that the release of a two-years-in-the-making American Middle East peace plan would be postponed until after the Israeli vote. This was widely attributed to a desire to avoid harming Netanyahu's campaign by forcing him to accept politically-unpalatable concessions to the Palestinians.
Now, the White House reportedly is considering holding a state dinner to express "presidential support" for the Israeli premier when he visits Washington in March. To date, President Trump has feted only his French counterpart with such pomp and ceremony, the optics of which will play well with Netanyahu's base.
"Israelis view the U.S. as a sort of patron and the majority of them have a positive image of Trump, so his backing could provide a boost to Netanyahu," Dr. Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line. "There is no legal problem with President Trump hosting Netanyahu, although from a democratic point of view this is somewhat problematic. Even so, countries have always done this and it is part of the political game.
"As long there is transparency and done above-table," he elaborated, "the issue of foreign intervention can be limited and need not significantly damage the freedom of elections. Also, it is for this reason countries have laws that protect the integrity of the vote."
Notably, Yitzhak Rabin was the last Israeli prime minister invited to a state dinner at the White House, joined by Jordan's King Hussein to mark the signing of their landmark 1994 peace accord. This underscores the magnitude of the opportunity which will dovetail nicely with the Netanyahu camp's narrative that only he is capable of navigating Israel's relationship with the lone global superpower, and, more broadly, that his diplomatic skills primarily account for burgeoning ties with Arab, African, Latin American and Asian countries.
"There have been all kinds of attempts by American administrations to interfere in Israeli elections even though the most spectacular example failed," Professor Eytan Gilboa, Director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University, explained to The Media Line. "This was when Bill Clinton organized a conference in Sinai [in March 1996] essentially in support of then-prime minister Shimon Peres. But Netanyahu went on to shock everyone by winning the elections [two months later].
"It is very difficult to manipulate Israeli public opinion from the outside," he continued, "as voters are informed of what is going on since their consumption of conventional news is one of the highest in the world.  While it is obvious the Trump administration is trying to demonstrate support for Netanyahu, the most important factor in the upcoming vote is domestic; namely, whether centrist and leftist parties come together to form a bloc large enough to challenge the premier."
Nevertheless, Netanyahu is as cognizant as anyone about the effect a U.S. president can have on Israel's political system. While he overcame Clinton's backing for Peres, the premier still today blames the American leader for his subsequent defeat to Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections. After assuming office, Barak engaged in Clinton's intensive peace process that culminated at Camp David the following year with Palestinian chief Yassir Arafat's rejection of a comprehensive proposal to end the conflict.
Arafat went on to launch the Second Intifada—a period from 2000-2005 characterized by Palestinian suicide bombings in Israeli public places—a national trauma Netanyahu recently invoked as he warned against the emergence of another left-wing government.
During the 2015 election campaign—with Netanyahu polling far behind the Zionist Union—it was a badly-kept secret that the Obama administration attempted to influence the outcome by funding the Israel-based V-15 organization whose slogan was, "anyone but Bibi [Netanyahu's nickname]." A subsequent Senate review found that the State Department funneled some $350,000 to the group—albeit in accordance with American law—in hopes of unseating the prime minister.
This came amid heightened tensions between the two leaders due to Netanyahu's controversial speech to Congress—arranged by his Republican allies without informing the White House—in which he slammed the Iran nuclear deal. Many thereafter accused Netanyahu of cynically using the pulpit to boost his standing, whereas Obama refused to meet the premier in a perceived snub paradoxically attributed to a "longstanding practice and principle…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."
Others viewed Obama's actions as what-goes-around-comes-around, payback for Netanyahu's apparent backing of Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. presidential vote. According to accounts, the premier's envoy to Washington Ron Dermer actively cooperated with Republican operatives and persuaded Netanyahu that Romney was a shoe-in.
"Both Israel and the U.S. meddle indirectly, with actions undertaken intended to alter the elections," Dr. Yehuda Ben Meir, Senior Research Fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies and an expert on Israeli public opinion, related to The Media Line. "This includes, for example, when [George H. W.] Bush conditioned loan guarantees to the Shamir government, earmarked to help absorb Russian immigrants, on the cessation of settlement construction. Yitzhak Rabin went on to win the 1992 elections" and the next year signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
"Israelis recognize the crucial nature of the relationship with the U.S. and do not want tensions," Dr. Ben Meir noted. "This is a [determining] factor for some voters but it can work both ways. Nobody wants to be told who to cast their ballot for and if it is clear the Americans want one candidate over another then this can boomerang and cancel out any effect."
Ahead of April 9, Israel rightfully is preparing to defend against potential interventions by the likes of arch-foe Iran and other autocratic regimes such as in Russia and China. Given past precedent, however, any resulting disruption is likely to pale in comparison to the impact the Jewish state's closest partner has had on the course of its political evolution.