As the high-stakes Israeli election campaign kicks into high gear with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing his first formidable rival in years in the form of former general Benny Gantz, he has decided to play what seems to be one of his strongest cards: his relationship with President Donald Trump.
Commuters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem beginning their work week on Sunday encountered massive billboards on the cities’ highways featuring Trump and Netanyahu clasping hands with big smiles, over which loomed the Israeli prime minister’s campaign slogan: “Netanyahu. In Another League.”
The billboard underscores the message that the current prime minister’s diplomatic finesse and positive influence on the U.S. president can’t be replicated by another leader.
That message was hammered home in a short campaign video released last week which opens with a bold caption: “They said it was impossible!” The video then shows Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting declaring that the U.S. embassy needing to be moved to Jerusalem. A quick cut transitions into President Trump on video last May, announcing that “today we officially open the United States Embassy in Jerusalem. Congratulations!”
Netanyahu enjoys a close relationship with Trump and this is not the first time he has played a role in Netanyahu's election campaigns: Back in 2013, then-businessman Donald Trump gave Netanyahu an outright endorsement in a campaign video, calling him a “terrific guy” and a “terrific leader” for Israel.
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“He’s a winner, he’s highly respected, he’s highly thought of by all,” Trump said at the time.
Israel is one of the few countries in the world in which close ties to Trump carry political currency, where his tough rhetoric on Iran and the Palestinians, as well as the embassy move, have earned him rare popularity. In a recent global survey, Israel ran second only to the Philippines when it came to the U.S. president’s popularity, with 69 percent saying they had confidence in Trump - a sharp contrast to most countries in which Trump is deeply unpopular.
Not only is Netanyahu using Trump’s favorable image among Israeli voters to his advantage, he is also adopting one of his high-profile campaign tactics. On Saturday evening, he unveiled “Likud TV” - a replica of a news studio where, he said, his party would broadcast “the truth” and promises to “take the ‘fake’ out of the news.” He announced the creation of the campaign channel in a satirical video that poked fun at the corruption and bribery investigations against him alleging that he traded favors to media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.
Unlike the often-amateurish “Trump Tower Live” Facebook broadcasts during the U.S. president’s campaign, however, the Likud TV studio is slick and professional, and won’t be helmed by campaign aides like Boris Epshteyn and Kellyanne Conway - but by Eliraz Sadeh, a popular reality star and TV personality, and frequented by Netanyahu himself.
The prime minister took to the new studio on Sunday morning to appeal to Likud voters to take part in the party primaries on Tuesday, and appealed his supporters to allow him to leave three top spots on the list open for members of other parties, which would keep the door open for a merger between Likud and other right-wing parties, in order to counter the threat of similar mergers by Gantz’s party.
Netanyahu is favorite to win the election but opinion polls show Gantz making gains. The prime minister is facing possible charges in three graft cases. He denies any wrongdoing and has called the investigations a witch-hunt. On Friday, the attorney general said there was no legal reason to prevent him from announcing, before the election, any intention to indict Netanyahu on corruption charges should he decide such a move was warranted. Formal indictment in court would depend on pre-trial hearings, likely to be held only after the poll.
Reuters contributed background to this report