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The wild card in Israel’s election? Trump

Netanyahu re-election sign
REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Two developments in Washington have put Israel on its back foot, and one in particular calls into question the value of Netanyahu’s tight relationship with President Trump, with whom he’s chosen to be pictured on his campaign billboards.

For an event that seems a lot like watching “Groundhog Day” again and again, there has been a lot of intrigue surrounding Israel’s election coming up on Tuesday. Some of the most consequential has to do with Israel’s greatest ally, the United States.  

This election is happening because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t cobble together a coalition after the last vote, only five months ago. The reason he failed was a dispute among potential governing partners over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should face conscription. The election in April was called back in December because of the same dispute. 

Netanyahu’s main adversary is the same serious-but-oh-so-boring coalition of former generals he faced in April. They don’t differ much with him over security issues. But the differences over conscription among Netanyahu’s most likely allies remain. Many analysts once again regard former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a secular nationalist who wants to draft the ultra-Orthodox, as the kingmaker. In addition, Netanyahu faces the prospect of being indicted on corruption charges. That isn’t new, either, but  a parliamentary majority could grant him immunity. 

Bill Murray’s character didn’t spend forever reliving Groundhog Day, and neither will Netanyahu be Israel’s prime minister for eternity. It’s true that the leading figure in the opposition Blue-and-White coalition, Benny Gantz, is a respected former army chief of staff. But in contrast to Netanyahu’s Energizer Bunny approach to campaigning, Gantz — in the memorable words of one Israeli columnist — “often seems like a rabbit roaming the highway late at night, its eyes transfixed by the headlights of the car about to run him down.”

Netanyahu has been engaged in some pre-election shenanigans: Trying — and failing — to gain the right to film in polling stations, ostensibly to make sure Israeli Arabs don’t cheat (there is no evidence they’ve cheated in the past), and more likely to discourage them from voting. In order to whip up enthusiasm in the settler movement, he announced plans to annex the Jordan Valley if he wins. 

An uptick in Israeli military action against Iranian targets in Syria, aimed at preventing Tehran’s militia allies from firing missiles into Israel, highlights the continued tension with Iran.  

But there is a wild card that is making the Israeli political establishment nervous, and this one Netanyahu can’t control. It’s the one in the White House.  

Two developments in Washington have put Israel on its back foot, and one in particular calls into question the value of Netanyahu’s tight relationship with President Trump, with whom he’s chosen to be pictured on his campaign billboards.

Politico reported last week that U.S. intelligence has determined that Israel was responsible for installing listening devices near the White House. It quoted one former U.S. official as saying they probably were intended to spy on Trump — he of the undisciplined phone habits — and his close associates. That’s pretty brazen, even for Israeli intelligence, which has a reputation for being aggressive. Israel denied spying and the officials said the Trump administration didn’t punish Israel, or even complain. Maybe Trump doesn’t care, but this isn’t the way you treat someone who gives you everything you want (moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem; recognizing your sovereignty over the Golan Heights), and asks nothing in return. At some point, Israel will have some explaining to do. 

All the same, the stakes are much higher in the other case. For Netanyahu, there is virtually nothing more important than policy toward Iran. He was bitterly opposed to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and cheered as Trump ripped it up and reapplied sanctions.  

But all of a sudden, Trump is talking about meeting with the Iranians — as early as this month, even while his administration is blaming Iran for the drone strikes over the weekend that knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. This comes just days after he fired National Security Adviser John Bolton, the original “regime change” guy. Differences with Trump over Iran were a big reason. 

After all the political capital Netanyahu has invested in Trump, is the U.S. president about to go squishy on Iran the way he did on North Korea? Some senior Israeli officials reportedly have already concluded that Trump will meet with the Iranians, perhaps President Hassan Rouhani, sometime soon. While you can’t imagine Ayatollah Khamenei sending Trump “beautiful letters,” like Kim Jong Un, Israeli leaders — of virtually any political persuasion — don’t relish facing Iran without U.S. backup. 

That’s a worst-case scenario for them. It might not happen, but that’s the risk when Trump is your No. 1 ally.

This election will be close — perhaps as close as the last time, when Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue-and-White each won 35 seats in parliament. But Netanyahu’s voters and their likely allies are considered more enthusiastic. Trump is dangling the idea of a new defense pact with Israel and both sides say Trump’s long-delayed plan for the Middle East will come out soon after the election. It has no chance of actually happening, but the idea might give a small boost Netanyahu’s to campaign. Delaying an announcement of a meeting with the Iranians would minimize the damage, too. 

Netanyahu, as usual, might end up doing just well enough. If so, he has a shot of avoiding indictment. His job won’t be any easier, though. He might wake up again as prime minister, but it still would be Groundhog Day. 

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