Analysis

How Trump and Netanyahu Became Each Other’s Most Effective Political Weapon

As the Israeli election draws near and Netanyahu is engaged in an intense fight for political survival, and as the 2020 drumbeat grows louder, the Jewish state is on Trump’s mind — and his Twitter feed

U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands on the West Wing colonnade, Washington, March 25, 2019.
Leah Millis/REUTERS

On the eve of Israel’s April election, it seemed as if the political synergy between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t possibly be surpassed. But as Netanyahu fights for survival in the “do-over” September  election and the 2020 drumbeat pushing Trump into campaign mode, the two leaders’ use of their close relationship for political gain has reached a new level of intensity. 

“Both understand the benefit of binding themselves together,” says Israel Policy Forum’s director of policy, Michael Koplow, and so are active participants in each other’s well-being. “Netanyahu knows how popular Trump is in Israel, and knows that the closer he is tied to him, the better.” 

In addition, says Koplow, “this is the first time Netanyahu has ever had a Republican president — and he wants to keep it that way. There is no friction with the United States and Donald Trump is handing him all these gifts. It’s wonderful for him.” Those gifts have included moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem last year and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

A man walking past a Likud election campaign billboard, depicting President Donald Trump shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, February 4, 2019.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

And Trump, Koplow adds, is just as aware of the Israeli leader’s popularity among his own base. “Everyone has always said that Netanyahu would be elected as a Republican senator in a heartbeat. For a while now, Netanyahu has been the most popular Israeli leader among Republicans — particularly evangelicals.” 

Earlier this year, Netanyahu began his (first) election campaign of the year by having massive billboards erected above Israel’s major highways of himself and Trump smiling and shaking hands. The Israeli premier then proudly posted photos of the signs on Instagram, which were subsequently shared by Trump on his own Instagram account. Then, Netanyahu’s White House visit just weeks before the April 9 election — for a presidential proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — was lovingly documented in a Trump administration video. An identical video was immediately turned into an online Netanyahu campaign ad, ending with the Likud campaign slogan and logo. 

At the same time, Trump was busy decrying the hostility of the Democratic Party toward Israel. In March, just before his White House meeting with Netanyahu, the U.S. president told reporters that “the Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel … and it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them, but they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.” 

He then took to Twitter to promote the Jexodus movement — a right-wing, Republican group calling on young Jews to abandon the Democratic Party, quoting the group’s spokeswoman as saying that Democrats “don’t care about Israel or the Jewish people.”

Now, with Netanyahu engaged in a more intense fight for political survival and the 2020 campaign already underway, the Jewish state is once more on Trump’s mind — and Twitter feed.

A breakdown of countries Trump has tweeted about from July 1-23: Israel is mentioned 17 times.

An examination of the president’s tweets over the month of July (until July 23) shows that Israel has been mentioned far more than any other foreign country: 17 times, mostly over the past two weeks, and every time a positive reference or in defense of the Jewish state against perceived enmity. This is a dramatic increase from the previous three weeks, when Israel was mentioned only twice. 

Many of the other nations cited by Trump — like Iran, the United Kingdom and India — were mentioned because he was criticizing them. For example, the second most frequently mentioned country, China, was name-checked by Trump 10 times following growing tensions over tariffs and trade policy.  

Over and over again, sometimes over the course of a single day, Trump positioned himself as Israel’s defender from attacks by members of “the squad” (Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley) — painting their views as reflecting those of the Democratic Party as a whole, ripping into them as being “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic,” and having made Israel “feel abandoned.” 

Trump paired his angry tweets at the congresswomen with praise for Israel and Netanyahu. He tweeted a laudatory message over the weekend congratulating Netanyahu on becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, praising him for helming a country that is “a technology powerhouse and a world class economy,” and leading Israel “with a commitment to the values of democracy, freedom, and equal opportunity that both our nations cherish and share!”

Netanyahu quickly responded: “Thank you, President Trump, for your warm words, outstanding support & incredible friendship,” he gushed. “I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with you. Under your leadership, we’ve made the alliance between our two remarkable countries stronger than ever. I know there’s more to come.”

Trump’s compliment was quickly converted into campaign material for Netanyahu. It was translated into Hebrew, accompanied by a photo of the two men standing intimately together, the U.S. president listening attentively to the Israeli premier.

Netanyahu personally may have stayed silent — for now — on the feud between Trump and “the squad.” But his eldest son, Yair Netanyahu, has plunged into the fray. (He recently returned from a month-long trip to the United States, where he met with a long list of Trump’s friends and allies, and spoke to several pro-Trump organizations.) On Tuesday, Netanyahu Jr. tweeted a meme mocking liberals critical of Trump’s remarks telling the four women of color to go “back where they came from,” helping Trump in his mission to drive a wedge into the Democratic Party’s fragile coalition.

Given that Israelis go to the polls in less than two months and the U.S. ballot is more than 15 months away, Netanyahu’s need for help is clearly more immediate. The Israeli leader’s once-vaunted domestic political skills are being questioned after he failed in his efforts to form a governing coalition after the April election, and he continues to be haunted by pending corruption indictments against him. Unsurprisingly, then, the Likud leader is stressing his one unquestioned advantage over his domestic rivals: his international prestige. 

His campaign in the “do-over” election is focusing on the argument that none of his rivals can replicate his relationship with world leaders — most importantly, the admiration that Trump has for him. Lavishing positive attention on Trump serves his own political benefit in the short-term and, in the long-term, Trump’s as well.  

The U.S. leader is surely counting on additional assistance from Jerusalem as the 2020 campaign continues to heat up. Netanyahu has the ability to encourage Jewish GOP donors like Sheldon and Miriam Adelson to continue opening their pocketbooks for Trump, to push pro-Israel Jewish voters in key swing states like Florida, and lend a hand with the Republicans’ plan to aggressively mobilize higher numbers of evangelicals in November 2020.

As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk suggested in June, if Netanyahu survives the September ballot with Trump’s help, he will owe the U.S. president. He can then be counted on to return the favor “by arguing forcefully to American Jews and evangelical voters that they should vote for Trump because he’s the best friend Israel has ever had.”