Netanyahu’s diplomatic legacy no longer hinges on early elections

It is unusual for the diplomatic agenda of an Israeli prime minister and that of a US president to be so strongly linked as those of Netanyahu and Donald Trump.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking out a barred window (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking out a barred window
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was faced this August with an almost Solomonic choice: his political legacy or his diplomatic one.
Early elections could have strengthened Netanyahu’s legislative hand to combat the judicial system, so that he could be saved from his upcoming corruption trial, which as of now is likely to begin in January.
But elections would have put his diplomatic legacy at risk, by weakening Israel’s standing with regard to the normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain that had just come to light that month.
Back in August, Netanyahu went with diplomacy. It’s a choice that so far has placed him in the rare echelon of the only other two leaders to sign peace deals: prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.
A strange karmic wave has washed through Netanyahu’s diplomatic and political life in the last two years. Precisely at the moment when he was at his weakest politically, he was at his strongest diplomatically.
It is unusual for the diplomatic agenda of an Israeli prime minister and that of a US president to be so strongly linked as those of Netanyahu and Donald Trump.
For 18 months, however, Netanyahu was not fully able to exploit that strong partnership, because the country was in the midst of a prolonged election cycle, as Netanyahu failed twice to form a government. He succeeded in doing so only after a third election, finally forming a government in May.
This left little time to advance any peace initiative, either between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and the Arab world, given that Trump was under his own political timeline.
Unless Trump is victorious on November 3, this last half a year was his only narrow window to make his diplomatic mark on the Middle East.
It was a window that they almost lost in August. Had Netanyahu sent the country into elections, a new government could only have been formed after the US elections.
Netanyahu literally would have risked being like the biblical figure of Moses, who brought the Jewish people to promise land, but died in the desert without ever crossing the Jordan River.
So there is little wonder that Netanyahu pulled himself back from the electoral brink at the last moment.
This has allowed Netanyahu to brand himself as something of a prophet. A diplomat who, already 25 years ago, conceived of a “peace for peace” philosophy, in which Israel’s ties with Arab neighbors would be based on strength rather than territorial concessions.
With a government in place Netanyahu’s  “peace for peace” philosophy was legitimized by the Knesset’s passage by 80-13, of the UAE deal. Ministers can work on memorandums of understanding and agreements with both the UAE and Bahrain. These are moves that can take place because a government exists.
Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis spoke Wednesday of additional deals that are in the works.
But Netanyahu no longer need weigh those deals when pondering new Israeli elections.
THERE ARE less than two weeks until the US elections, so the Trump administration’s clock here has almost run out. Should Trump lose the election, he will still have two months until his term ends in January, but his power to sign deals would be greatly reduced, given that his administration would be a lame duck one.
Should Trump win the US election, Netanyahu has time to roll the dice politically with a new Israeli election. If he succeeds, he can resume the pursuit of normalized Israeli relations with the Arab world.
Should Trump lose, Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden will need time to transition into the White House and would be unlikely to be in the position to immediately expand on the Abraham Accords.
Netanyahu has nothing to lose diplomatically by sanctioning early elections through the use of a budget crisis. He can, therefore, turn his attention to Israeli politics, where the debate is dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The issue he would weigh with regard to elections is more likely to be about internal dynamics on the Israeli Right, given that polls show that Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett could receive  23 mandates compared to Netanyahu’s 26.
Events on the other side of the ocean could give him pause with regard to the risk of an electoral loss. Netanyahu has campaigned heavily on his relationship with Trump, so much so that it is hard to imagine Israel’s relationship with a Trump White House without Netanyahu. A Trump win, would likely help Netanyahu at the ballot box.
But a Biden victory could also play in his favor, given that Netanyahu could present himself as a politician with the best history of standing strong against a Democratic White House.
A Trump victory might empower Netanyahu’s political enemies, but is unlikely to prevent him from taking the country back to the polls.
This is particularly true, because as time goes on, he has little to lose. Diplomatically, he can still rest on his diplomatic laurels with regard to the Abraham Accords.
But politically, he is in trouble with elections and in trouble without them. Under the existing coalition agreement, Alternative Prime Minister Benny Gantz is due to replace Netanyahu already in November of 2021. This means that as the days pass the incentive for elections can only grow. Increasingly, if Netanyahu wants to stay in office, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain from early elections.