Washington watch: Bibi’s big campaign rally

Mr. Netanyahu goes to Washington.

Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold a major campaign rally two weeks before Israel votes on whether to give him a record fifth term. The gathering of the faithful will be at the Washington Convention Center and will be sponsored by AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobby that has been a close ally of the prime minister for more than three decades.
In a dubious attempt to seem even-handed, Netanyahu’s opponents, largely unknown in the United States, will also make appearances – but the crowd will follow the lead of the organization that has long leaned toward Likud and Republicans.
AIPAC and Netanyahu have a long symbiotic history, to the point that neither is fully trusted by many in the center and Left in their respective countries.
The committee may have recently begun talking of reaching out to progressives and Democrats, but it can’t do that and remain the head cheerleader for America’s and Israel’s most right-wing governments.
Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin once threatened to revoke AIPAC’s hechsher, certificate of kashrut, not just because it was an ardent supporter of Likud, but because senior officials of the group had betrayed Labor confidences in order to help Rabin’s right-wing opposition.
After eight years of Netanyahu falsely vilifying Barack Obama as hostile to Jews and Israel – even to the point of publicly leading the Republican lobbying against his signature foreign-policy achievement, the Iran nuclear agreement – the premier finally has a friend in the White House.
That’s why he will also be going to the White House to meet with his friend Donald Trump. Pre-president Trump did a campaign commercial endorsing Netanyahu’s election, and in this campaign he appears on giant posters promoting the prime minister’s reelection. Bibi made no secret of his support for Trump in 2016, although not as clumsily blatant as in 2012, when he backed Mitt Romney.
Now, in what may be the toughest campaign of his career, he’s looking to have the favor returned.
The AIPAC appearance and White House photo-op will get better coverage in Israel than any speech Netanyahu could give at home, and it will be a chance to showcase his stewardship of the alliance with Israel’s most important ally.
Trump already endorsed Bibi when the president was in Hanoi, just before Israel’s attorney-general announced plans to indict the prime minister. Now they’ll want to do more, as both men will be looking to exploit recent terrorist events to burnish their tough-guy credentials.
But Bibi has to be careful, now that Democrats have control of the House of Representatives. He can expect Trump to repeat his new mantra that Democrats hate Israel and hate Jews, and call for Jews to join the GOP. It won’t happen, but that won’t silence Trump, who has never let the truth get in his way. After years of neglect, Netanyahu knows he has to mend fences with Democrats, not alienate them more.
He is the main reason for the wide and growing rift between American Jewry and Israel. Bibi’s dilemma is that a big reason he is so unpopular in America is why he is so popular at home – and for now, with elections and a possible indictment looming, that is far more important.
Like Trump, his alliance with religious and nationalist extremists are the base that has kept him in power.
A new Gallup poll shows 71% of American Jews disapprove of Trump. That’s the number that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Last year, Jews voted 79% Democratic in the congressional elections. Trump’s efforts to convince Jews to switch to the GOP are ineffective. No religious group in the survey reported a lower opinion of Trump, according to Gallup, which found that only 16% of Jews identify as Republicans.
The upcoming White House meeting will do nothing to help Trump win Jewish votes (money is another matter), but it could help Netanyahu’s campaign back home, which is the real reason he’s going to Washington.
NETANYAHU WILL be looking to Trump for some gifts to take back, along with the video clips of the AIPAC crowds and the White House hug. Some items on Bibi’s wish list are:
• Jonathan Pollard – Bibi wants Trump to let him take the old spy back to Israel for a hero’s welcome – for both men.
• Golan Heights – He wants Trump to announce US recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel. It was annexed in 1981, but the US and every other country rejected the move.
• Occupation – The State Department’s human-rights report referred to the Golan, the West Bank and Gaza as “under Israeli control,” a departure from the term “occupied territories” used since 1967. For Trump to say this would reinforce the Israeli hard-liners who oppose Palestinian statehood and further territorial compromise.
• No meeting with the opposition – Trump will welcome Netanyahu as the sitting prime minister, and say that refusing to meet with his opponents is meant to avoid interference in domestic Israeli politics, as if anyone would believe that.
• Upgrade the strategic relationship – Netanyahu will trumpet this as another great achievement, but it means little, since there will be no details.
• Money – Trump will boast that there will be no cuts to Israel’s $3.8 billion aid package in his 2020 budget, even though he is cutting State Department and USAID funding by 24%, while making deep slashes in humanitarian aid, refugee assistance and global health programs.
Trump will be looking for some favors in return from Netanyahu. That will include (again) declaring him to be Israel’s best friend ever in the White House, endorsing his wall on the southern border, and praising the first son-in-law’s effort to bring peace to the Middle East (even though Bibi is no more interested in a peace deal than the ayatollahs are in being bar mitzvahed).
With little prospect for winning many Jewish votes, what Trump really wants is for Bibi to help him raise campaign money from his own network of rich American Jews. Look for the prime minister to visit the US in the fall of 2020 – if he’s not in prison – to meet with both parties’ nominees, and leave no doubt about which one has his hechsher.