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Israel Now a Key Battleground in the Global Clash of Liberal Democracy and Its Enemies

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Likud Party election banners showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with US President Donald Trump, captioned in Hebrew: 'Netanyahu, another league.' Tel Aviv, July 28, 2019
Likud Party election banners showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with US President Donald Trump, captioned in Hebrew: 'Netanyahu, another league.' Tel Aviv, July 28, 2019Credit: AFP

The giant posters adorning the Likud party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, showing party leader and Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi, vividly showcase a new political reality - with global cosequences.

They're only one example of an exceptional level of international involvement in both this year's Israeli national election campaigns, unprecedented in both scope and style. But the posters, their iconography and their message have a significance beyond the intricacies of Israeli politics.

The posters reveal the developing fault lines dividing two competing global camps – liberals and non-liberals – and their growing willingness to support allies and confront foes in a direct, unvarnished manner.   

>> Israel's Last Election Before It Becomes an Illiberal Democracy >> Trump and Putin Lead the League of Nationalists, but Netanyahu Is Their Disturbingly Enthusiastic Enabler

International support for Israeli political candidates engaged in competitive elections is not new. The Sharm el-Sheikh Summit organized by President Bill Clinton to support Shimon Peres’ failed 1996 campaign is a notable example. However, foreign interventions have generally been far more low-key than the explicit pro-Netanyahu lobbying we are now witnessing.

Gone are previous campaigns conducted cautiously behind the scenes to back a candidate's political agenda: these efforts mostly concern the personal rather than the ideological, part of an effort to elevate or to challenge Netanyahu’s image as a global leader.

One of Netanyahu’s main electoral goals is to convince voters that he is indispensable, by branding himself Israel’s only leader with the requisite international magnitude. International feedback is thus a central tool in cementing this play, and in diverting attention from Netanyahu’s pending criminal indictments towards his global prestige.

Ahead of the first round of elections in April 2019, Netanyahu’s international allies – leaders of what one could describe as the global non-liberal camp – answered his call by providing both diplomatic gestures and concrete policy steps. The weeks before the election were saturated with international events carefully crafted by the Netanyahu campaign.

Official visits by foreign allies offered Netanyahu photo-opportunities to land his image as a global leader. Hungary's Viktor Orban and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro became protagonists in the international "Re-elect Netanyahu" campaign.

The most critical support was provided by the two competing leaders of the global non-liberal camp. 

Belongings of Staff Sgt. Zachary Baumel on display in a ceremony in Russia, April 4, 2019. Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

First, Putin, who met with Netanyahu and donated symbolic capital by retrieving Israeli MIA Zachary Baumel’s body. Secondly, and above everyone else, Trump’s explicit mobilization for Netanyahu’s campaign. 

Trump's finest electoral gift was his recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. This act appealed to a majority of Israelis who see the territory as an integral part of Israel. It also resonated with Netanyahu’s own right-wing base who made the annexation of occupied land a leading topic in the campaign.

Trump’s declaration allowed Netanyahu to present a clear sense of achievement in the crucial last stretch, with which even his opponents could not dispute. Netanyahu once again situated himself as the only Israeli leader capable of stepping onto the international stage and getting results.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at the unveiling of a new community named after U.S. President Donald Trump in the Golan Heights. June 16, 2019Credit: \ Ammar Awad/ REUTERS

This, while the international activity of his main contender, Benny Gantz, was limited to speeches at AIPAC and the Munich Security Conference

Ahead of the coming re-run elections, we already see Netanyahu attempting similar plays to exploit his interpersonal relations with prominent non-liberal leaders to brand him, as his slogan goes, as a leader in a "different league." 

The growing list of world leaders to meet Netanyahu before the election includes another close peer – India’s Prime Minister Modi. But the main campaign’s effort is focused on arranging a timely visit to Israel by Russia's Putin, during which a monument to fallen Russian soldiers will be unveiled. That's possibly devised to influence Russian-speaking voters, who are of special electoral importance for Netanyahu this time around.

Trump is also reportedly planning moves that can boost Netanyahu's chances for reelection, possibly including an announcement of new U.S. security guarantees to Israel.

This world-spanning support highlights Netanyahu’s status as a central figure in the global non-liberal camp. His domestic policy corresponds with its values, favoring the majoritarian aspect of democracy over liberal values. However, it also put forward a message that goes well beyond the Israeli context – in times of need, the non-liberal network also functions as a practical political alliance.

The liberal camp lags behind, but it too has shown some willingness to get involved in the Israeli election. In light of the global crisis of liberal democracy, there is a growing understanding that like-minded liberals and progressives – in various countries – should better coordinate and cooperate.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen Bernie Sanders delivers his closing statement during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season. Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019Credit: AFP

Bernie Sanders has even called for an "international progressive front" to confront the "new authoritarian axis." Civil society organizations were the first to take the lead in this challenge, and the Israeli election may signal the beginning of a spillover into the political field. Stav Shaffir, one of the founders of Israel's left-wing Democratic Camp, has called on progressives to establish a "united movement to defend liberal democratic values."

In this liberal democratic spirit of pushing back, a few days before Israel's April 2019 election, U.S. Democratic presidential candidates voiced unprecedented criticism of Netanyahu, accusing him of endorsing racism and of being corrupt. Sanders said openly he hoped Netanyahu loses.

This was a continuation of a gradual process in which mainstream Jewish organizations and figures showed a willingness to criticize Netanyahu and his domestic policies, a trend motivated both by resentment towards Netanyahu, and by his overly-close alliance with Trump.

Nevertheless, lacking a clear progressive alternative candidate to Netanyahu, liberals’ critical steps never amounted to a direct endorsement of his opponents. 

In Europe, liberals have been even more cautious. They tend to refrain from intervening in domestic Israeli politics, partly because they too did not see an appealing alternative to Netanyahu they could wholeheartedly endorse. French President Emmanuel Macron was the exception. Four days prior to the previous election, he hosted Yair Lapid for a meeting, a move which the Blue and White party hoped would boost their international image.

Emmanuel Macron and Yair Lapid speak in Paris on April 5, 2019.

Macron’s step could be seen as a personal favor, grounded in pre-existing links with Lapid, but which also stemmed from his position as a central leader within the global liberal camp and as an alternative to Trump.

Despite their limited nature, these tentative steps by liberals indicate that a change may be underway to challenge the loud illiberal support for Netanyahu. But their insufficient nature can be seen by the fact that no further steps have been taken towards the September 2019 elections, and Israel's center-left politicians have not yet acted to encourage their international allies to take action.

That seems even more short-sighted if one considers how global liberals will have no option but to get involved in Israeli affairs should the next Israeli government fulfil Netanyahu's promise to annex settlements, and in U.S. affairs as the presidential election year draws near.

Placing the Israeli election as one in a series of global events allows us to obtain a broader perspective of the ongoing realignment of the international system. It demonstrates the willingness of key liberal and non-liberal actors to adopt a more proactive approach in influencing what was until now considered diplomatically as sacred ground – national elections in friendly countries.

It may signal that the gloves are coming off in the global conflict between liberals and non-liberals. However, it also demonstrates the power asymmetry between the camps. The world's liberals still have much work to do before they can collectively start to turn the tide.

Dr. Gil Murciano is a foreign policy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Twitter: @MurcianoGil

Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies

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