American Campaigning Elevates Netanyahu’s Election Chances to New Heights

As Israel’s elections approach on April 9th, indictments recommended by the Israeli attorney general failed to significantly alter election projections. Over the last few weeks, the Trump Administration has been taking center stage in aiding Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign in what appears to have been an orchestrated effort between the Israeli prime minister and the American president, culminating in a significant shift in US policy relating to the Golan Heights. A broader look at shifting US policy positions to align with Israeli agendas explains the significance of this move to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, for both supporting Netanyahu’s election campaign and paving the way for further annexation.

Indictment Announcement Falls Flat

The long-awaited decision of the attorney general in Israel on the legal cases surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally been made. At the end of February, just weeks before the elections in Israel, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he was supporting the indictment of Netanyahu on various corruption charges. This was expected to shape the outcome of the election more than any other factor. Netanyahu’s main challenge had been tailoring his campaign’s messaging around the possible indictment. The key challenger, Benjamin Gantz, a former Israeli military chief of staff, has positioned himself such that he was not campaigning against Netanyahu’s policies in any discernible way, but rather against Netanyahu’s politics and personality. During this time, Gantz’s party has also added a new high-profile member to its electoral slate, former military chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi; along with Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon, he is the third military chief of staff on the slate. This “general’s party” was constructed to neutralize the Israeli right’s security-framed attacks on its political opponents. The attorney general’s announcement should have helped make Gantz’s case decisively.

Polls do not indicate that the long-awaited attorney general’s announcement is a game changer in the election projections

But that does not seem to be what happened. Now, on the cusp of the election, polls do not indicate that the long-awaited attorney general’s announcement is a game changer in the election projections, despite the added firepower to Gantz’s slate. Indeed, daily polls are showing Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Gantz’s Blue and White Party neck and neck, with Gantz’s party often holding a one- or two-seat lead. Despite polling ahead of the Likud Party by marginal numbers, Gantz’s party would likely still struggle to form a coalition as the rest of the electorate is primarily divided between other right-wing and religious parties that will be natural partners for Netanyahu’s Likud.

If Gantz’s party cannot form a coalition with more than half of the parliament, there is the theoretical possibility that it could form a minority government with the support of the parties representing Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. The chances of this are slim because while minority governments have existed briefly as coalitions have broken down, no Israeli government has been successfully formed as a minority government after an election. Doing so would require consistent support in governance from outside allies, in this case the Arab parties. It is hard to imagine a legislative agenda that Gantz’s party could share with the Arab parties the day after Netanyahu is ousted. The arrangement would also play directly into the talking points of the right, which accuses the opposition of being beholden to the Arab parties.

Barring any significant unforeseen developments, Netanyahu and his natural coalition partners seem best positioned to lead the next Israeli government  

What is much more likely is that after the election, most of the Zionist parties would realize that Netanyahu is the only party head with a viable path to forming a ruling coalition, and they will recommend that he be the prime minister again. This outcome is not set in stone, however, and a number of factors could change it. First, there is time until the election and while polls have been fairly consistent in recent weeks, they could change or be wrong. Ultimately, the only poll that matters is the one on election day. Second, projections are based on estimates for turnout, which can vary for a number of reasons. There is some evidence to suggest that the turnout of Palestinian citizens of Israel will be higher this time around, but it is not clear how this will impact the way the rest of the pie is sliced. Indeed, with many parties vying against each other in a tight race, one or two seats could swing a coalition. However, barring any significant unforeseen developments, at this time Netanyahu and his natural coalition partners seem best positioned to lead the next Israeli government.

US Politicians and Netanyahu’s Campaign

The hardline message of the Israeli right has always been focused on security. No one more than Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to make the case that he is uniquely suited for adeptly handling Israel’s foreign relationships to ensure support for Israel’s security. Netanyahu’s argument to Israeli voters is that he, better than anyone else, knows how to talk to the world on Israel’s behalf and especially to its key ally, the United States of America. How Netanyahu was using the United States to make this argument to Israeli voters became a point of contention in 2015 when, along with then Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), he orchestrated a speech to Congress to lobby against the Iran deal just weeks before the election in Israel. Sure enough, the spectacle became part of Netanyahu’s election campaign then.

Numerous Trump Administration officials have served as willing campaign props for the Israeli prime minister

This time around, it is not a Republican House speaker he needs to rely on but the administration of the Republican president of the United States, Donald Trump. Numerous Trump Administration officials have met with Netanyahu in the weeks preceding the election and have served as willing campaign props for Israeli prime minister. A few weeks ago, the senator and high-profile Trump ally, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), along with Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, joined Netanyahu in the occupied Golan Heights. Netanyahu tweeted out a picture of himself with them, showing both US officials looking in the direction he is pointing. In the text of the tweet he writes, “The Golan Heights will always be part of Israel. It is important that the international community, especially our great friend the United States, recognizes this fact and accepts it.”

Shortly after that, Trump ally and former Republican governor, Mike Huckabee, a regular on right-wing US media, arrived in Israel and essentially did a campaign ad for Netanyahu, lauding his unrivaled ability to represent Israel.

Then, just days later, during a pre-scheduled trip to Israel by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump tweeted that the United States would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights. Pompeo’s trip served as an opportunity for Netanyahu to celebrate this news domestically with the US secretary of state by his side, including a rare joint appearance at the Western Wall.

The Golan Gift

Given the aforementioned choreography, it is hard not to see all of this as a coordinated effort between the Israeli prime minister and the White House. The annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference, a convening of the most influential pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, took place this week just before the election. Israeli politicians like Netanyahu and Gantz came to Washington to address the gathering (although Netanyahu delivered his speech via videoconference, after he cut short his trip to Washington following a rocket attack from Gaza). Together, US officials have given Netanyahu week after week of headline grabbing news related to the US-Israel relationship just ahead of what could be a pivotal election in Netanyahu’s career.

The warm embrace Netanyahu continues to receive in Washington, even as his country races rightward, is likely to embolden further Israeli expansionism and extremism.

On Monday, March 25, Netanyahu met with Trump for a press conference and signing ceremony for the proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. There, the Israeli prime minister scored the final photo op for his election campaign featuring numerous American officials in the background and the president of the United States signing a document that Netanyahu called the fruit of turning a “military victory into a diplomatic victory.” The warm embrace Netanyahu continues to receive in Washington, even as his country races rightward, is likely to embolden further Israeli expansionism and extremism.

American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights comes after the Trump Administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—thus, in the words of Trump himself, taking it “off the negotiating table”. While it is easy to try to explain these moves as just the latest unhinged excess of this most unusual American president, a broader review of history puts them on a common trajectory to which all US administrations have contributed. Time and again, the United States starts out with a very different position than Israel on issues related to the Palestinians and international law. Over time, however, Israel’s persistent intransigence is followed by Washington bending and shaping its policy to match and support the Israeli position.

Again and again, US positions grounded in international law shifted to accommodate the Israeli position. The Golan Heights now joins this list.

Take the refugee issue for example. The Truman Administration was disgusted by Israel’s refusal to repatriate Palestinian refugees in the postwar period. But Truman failed to meaningfully press Israel on this and Israel stood firm. Over time, the United States’ position supporting repatriation softened and ultimately changed. The same can be said of the US position toward settlements, which it had long viewed as illegal. Over the decades that Israel continued to expand them, Washington continued to tolerate settlement building in action while opposing it in word. By 2004, the Bush White House essentially acknowledged the legitimacy of certain settlements and called for adjustments to the armistice line. With Jerusalem, the story is similar. The long-standing US position had been that it was a final status issue, dating back to the 1947 UN partition plan. But this position, too, softened as Israel remained stalwart. By the 1990s Congress had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and presidential candidates were doing the same. Trump finally took it the next logical step forward. Again and again, US positions grounded in international law shifted to accommodate the Israeli position. The Golan Heights now joins this list. Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights once led to a major disruption in US-Israel relations during the Reagan presidency as the White House was adamantly opposed. Yet nearly 40 years later, the Trump White House readily recognized Israeli sovereignty in this occupied territory. With Israeli intransigence resulting in American acquiescence time after time and on issue after issue, we can only surmise the potent message the Israelis must be getting regarding the West Bank: annexation is acceptable, and if it is not acceptable today, it will be over time.

The Next Step

Today, some 42 percent of Israelis support full or partial annexation of the West Bank; this is a larger number than those who oppose it outright. Nearly half of Israelis who intend to vote for Labor, the party whose leaders initiated the Oslo Accords, support the annexation of Area C, which is 60 percent of the West Bank.

As Israelis head toward electing a new government—a process in which Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation have no say—Israeli politics is clearly moving in a direction of deepening occupation and hastening annexation. All signs point to the outcome of this election being another right-wing religious nationalist coalition government, headed by the Likud Party and Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, even if Netanyahu manages to fail in building a ruling coalition, Israeli attitudes across party lines seem more right-wing than they have been in the past. Barring significant pressure from outside, it is hard to imagine that Israeli politics will not continue down the path of further illegal annexation.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here