The Slatest

Bibi’s Biggest Asset Heading Into the Israeli Elections Is Donald Trump

Pedestrians cross a street in front of a giant election billboard showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands, in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on Feb. 3
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a giant election billboard showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands, in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on Feb. 3
Jack Guez/Getty Images

While he’s likely to be indicted on corruption charges soon and trails his main rival in the latest polls, it would be foolish to consider Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu anything but the favorite heading into Israel’s April 9 elections.

Bibi’s main rival, Benny Gantz, is running as a moderate reformer. But Israel’s electorate has shifted dramatically to the right in recent years, and right-wing parties are still likely to receive more overall votes than the center-left, meaning that Netanyahu will be able to form a coalition government even if his Likud party receives fewer votes than Gantz’s Blue and White alliance. (It’s worth noting that Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable, so take all predictions with a grain of salt.) Also working in Bibi’s favor: recent events including a thwarted Hamas rocket attack on Tel Aviv and the stabbing of an Israeli settler. Basically anything that highlights Israel’s security concerns helps Netanyahu, who paints Gantz as an irresponsible leftist despite his military pedigree.

Gantz, a former army chief who is running as a clean alternative to Netanyahu, has had to contend with a scandal of his own in recent days after Israel’s domestic security service Shin Bet reported that Iranian intelligence had hacked his cellphone, leading to speculation about what compromising information might have been obtained.

But Netanyahu’s biggest advantage in the closing days of the election is the Trump administration. Trump has already delivered for Netanyahu, by pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem—moves that alarmed many U.S. allies but were very popular in Israel. Netanyahu has played up his close relationship with Trump, most dramatically in the form of a massive billboard showing the two leaders over one of the main highways leading into Tel Aviv.

The Trump administration is now pulling out all the stops to boost Netanyahu down the stretch. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Israel where he pledged U.S. support for Israel against Iran. Next week, Netanyahu will travel to Washington—where he will meet with Trump on Monday and have dinner with him on Tuesday. (To be fair, it will only be a “working dinner,” somewhat less grand than the state dinner that Ambassador Ron Dermer was reportedly hoping to arrange.)

Netanyahu will also address AIPAC’s 2019 policy conference along with officials including Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. AIPAC issued some rare mild criticism of Netanyahu last month after he moved to include the overtly racist Otzma Yehudit Party in his coalition, but the conference is still his old stomping grounds and he’s likely to get a rapturous reception. Gantz is addressing AIPAC as well, though Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump is scheduled for the same time, which does not seem like a coincidence.

In another welcome development for the prime minister, Trump indicated on Twitter on Thursday that he would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights:

Israel captured this area from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967 and has been controlling it ever since, but it is considered internationally to be occupied territory. It’s not yet clear if this constitutes an official policy change, but legitimizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights would be a major show of support for one of Israel’s most internationally controversial policies, and it’s a move Netanyahu has been lobbying for.

The administration has also helpfully delayed the released of Jared Kushner’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan until some time after the election. The plan has been pre-emptively denounced by Netanyahu’s right-wing rival Naftali Bennett, who accused the prime minister of working with Trump to create a Palestinian state and divide Jerusalem. Better for Netanyahu if voters don’t see it.

Trump is not the first president to try to tip the scales in an Israeli election. Bill Clinton admitted that he worked, unsuccessfully, to try to boost Shimon Peres when he was running against Netanyahu in 1996.  But it’s still rare to see two leaders so in lockstep.

Netanyahu will need all the help he can get, as he needs to not only win reelection, but win it big. He wants to pass a “French Law,” which would shield the prime minister from prosecution while in office, something even many of his right-wing allies might be reluctant to support unless he commands an overwhelming mandate. If the law doesn’t pass, Israel’s attorney general is expected to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges after a hearing that can take place no later than July 10. Technically, Netanyahu could stay in power through a trial and possible appeals process that would drag on for years, but realistically, pressure would grow for him to resign.

Next month’s election could prove to only be Round 1 of Netanyahu’s fight for political survival, and Trump might not be able to bail him out in Round 2.