When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped to the stage in Tel Aviv early Wednesday morning to claim victory in this week’s national elections, not all of the banners greeting him from the sea of supporters were about him.
Some of them carried the name of a foreign leader: “TRUMP.”
Those conspicuously waving flags underscored the outsize role President Donald Trump and his administration played in Israeli elections that ended up delivering Mr. Netanyahu an unprecedented fifth term, his fourth consecutive, as prime minister.
Just as remarkable, many international affairs experts say, was the very unsubtle manner in which an American president threw his weight behind a personal favorite in another country’s election.
“Trump never said ‘Vote Bibi’ … [but] as far as I can remember this is unprecedented – [a U.S. president] not speaking, but acting in a way that signaled involvement on behalf of one of the candidates,” says Yossi Alpher, a former senior Israeli intelligence official who is now an independent national security analyst in Israel.
Noting that over the course of the campaign he never once heard any misgivings in Israel about the heavy involvement of a foreign leader on the prime minister’s behalf, Mr. Alpher adds, “Trump is very popular here. … Israelis don’t tend to think about the things that Americans who don’t like Trump think about.”
Of course, U.S. intervention in other countries’ affairs is nothing new. From covert CIA involvement in elections in Latin America and Southeast Asia, to more subtle support for favored candidates or pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe, the United States has acted to sway election outcomes and install or remove governments it liked or didn’t like – especially since emerging from World War II as a global superpower.
But those efforts, from the most overt to the least conspicuous, were generally justified at the time as being undertaken on behalf of U.S. national security interests, experts note, or in the name of American and universal values such as democracy and human rights.
What separates Mr. Trump’s intervention in Israel’s elections is both the support an American president bestowed on another leader, and the manner in which the president used that active endorsement to bolster his own support at home among key elements of his political base.
“Rarely if ever in my 25 years of experience in Republican and Democratic administrations did I ever see a president more determined to boost a favorite in an Israeli election,” says Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser on Middle East affairs who is now vice-president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.
“We meddle in other countries’ affairs all the time, we’ve meddled in elections and have overthrown governments. But this is completely different,” he adds. “It’s peculiar to the U.S.-Israel relationship and is an overt pro-Netanyahu approach that is tied up with Mr. Trump’s own political interests.”
TIMING OF POLICY SHIFTS
Indeed, many say there is no other explanation than political favoritism for the timing of two Trump administration decisions that came in recent weeks, as polls showed Mr. Netanyahu trailing his chief political rival in the election, political newcomer Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party.
First was Mr. Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, a move that past presidents, Republican and Democrat, have rejected as unilateralist and contrary to international law.
Then just last week came the State Department’s designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization – a first-ever such designation of a military division of a foreign state (as opposed to a non-state group) and one Mr. Netanyahu had unsuccessfully sought for years over the objections of the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon.
Both decisions were wildly popular with Mr. Trump’s base.
Mr. Trump’s heavy placement of his thumb on the scale of Israel’s elections is all the more striking in that it comes at a time of heightened sensitivity in the U.S. to the issue of foreign intervention in elections. Congress continues to take up the case of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election, which U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was carried out with the aim of damaging Hillary Clinton and boosting Mr. Trump’s prospects.
For some analysts, the glaring difference between the Russian intervention of 2016 and Mr. Trump’s pro-Netanyahu actions is that while Russia acted covertly through social media and other means to manipulate American voters, Mr. Trump has acted openly – taking steps that it could be argued (as administration officials repeatedly did) were taken in support of Israel and not of a leader or candidate.
WHAT OTHERS HAVE DONE
Still, Mr. Trump is widely seen as moving well beyond bounds set by previous administrations – which have taken steps to enhance the chances of favored Israeli prime minister candidates.
Mr. Miller cites three instances in which presidents acted to influence Israeli election outcomes – one under George H. W. Bush, two under Bill Clinton. But all three actions – for example, President Clinton invited Prime Minister Shimon Peres to the White House to talk Middle East peace just weeks before he would lose to the right-wing Mr. Netanyahu – were intended to further prospects for reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, not to boost a personal favorite.
Some close observers of Israeli politics note that Mr. Trump was not alone in acting to give Mr. Netanyahu a leg up. Look no farther than Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Mr. Alpher says.
The Israeli analyst says Mr. Putin did Mr. Netanyahu a significant political favor by arranging for the remains of an Israeli soldier who went missing in the 1982 Lebanon war to be returned to Israel. At a Kremlin meeting with Mr. Netanyahu less than a week before the April 9 elections, Mr. Putin said that “most importantly” the soldier’s “close relatives will be able to bring flowers to his grave.”
That message and the evidence of Mr. Netanyahu “using his connections” to finally bring the soldier’s remains home played very well with right-wing voters who ended up coming out for the prime minister and helping him eke out a win, Mr. Alpher says.
Mr. Putin’s gesture was no doubt designed in part to enhance Russia’s standing in Israel and indeed in the Middle East, but it’s hard to see it providing him with a big political boost at home.
What makes Mr. Trump’s pro-Netanyahu actions unique, Mr. Miller says, is how they are designed as much for U.S. domestic impact as to further U.S. goals in the Middle East. Indeed, some analysts say the all-in stance with Mr. Netanyahu could end up jarring Mr. Trump’s other big dream of being the U.S. president who delivers a Middle East peace deal.
But Mr. Trump clearly has his eye on 2020 as he handles the U.S.-Israel relationship with key constituencies of his base in mind, Mr. Miller says. In that sense, probably the closest comparison to Israel’s place in U.S. politics would be the case of Cuba, he adds, and the way Cuban-Americans have been courted for their outsize political impact – for example in a presidential-election swing state like Florida.
Mr. Netanyahu is revered among segments of the American electorate – including conservative evangelicals and Republican Jews – who have lionized him for standing up to President Barack Obama and undermining the Iran nuclear deal. Those same populations make up key elements of the Trump base.
“As we move toward 2020, this focus on Mr. Trump’s political interests is only going to intensify,” Mr. Miller says. Already the president is moving to exploit fissures developing in a reliably pro-Israel Congress over the president’s brand of favoritism, even as divisions deepen in the U.S. Jewish community over Mr. Trump’s combination of Netanyahu favoritism and antagonism toward Palestinians.
“Jews voted 80 percent Democratic in 2016, and that won’t change much no matter what” Mr. Trump does, Mr. Miller says. “But in close elections in a few key states, we all know that even a little movement can make a very big difference.”
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