Trump’s Polarizing Election Campaign Raises Stakes for Netanyahu and Israel

Mutual hostility breeds binary vision in which Trump’s best friend is perceived as the Democrats’ worst enemy

Chemi Shalev
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Trump winks at Netanyahu during a joint news conference at the White House, January 28, 2020.
Trump winks at Netanyahu during a joint news conference at the White House, January 28, 2020. Credit: Brendan McDermid/ REUTERS
Chemi Shalev

Donald Trump is doubling down on his divisive and polarizing campaign tactics. Rather than rebuffing his perceived image as a reactionary racist, which has plagued his polling numbers since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Trump has embraced it. But while U.S. commentators debate whether Trump is hurting or helping his reelection chances, one thing’s for sure: The stakes for Israel just keep getting higher.

Trump is seeking to galvanize his base, the pundits acknowledge, but his strident, in-your-face race-baiting is likely to hurt him among more moderate, suburban Republicans who are either wavering or have already decided to defect to Joe Biden’s camp. Trump, however, may have a more elaborate stratagem in mind.

Sovereignty Setback: Who Burst Bibi's Annexation Bubble?Credit: Haaretz

Trump’s glaring antipathy towards the Black Lives Matter movement and stalwart defense of Confederate statues incenses his Democratic opposition. The outrage emboldens radicals and compels Biden and Democratic leaders to escalate their attacks on the president. Inadvertently, the Democrats are thus advancing Trump’s goal of widening the polarization between left and right, allowing him to return later to wooing doubtful Republicans by emphasizing his rivals’ alleged radical shift.

Polarization breeds binary perceptions of reality. It divides the world into black and white, with no blurry grays in between. Stark, implacable divisions define an enemy’s enemy as a friend, but also mark an enemy’s friend as an enemy. Benjamin Netanyahu is seen as Trump’s best friend in the international arena, which means that the wider the split, the more he is embraced by Trump’s supporters and the more he is rejected by Trump’s opponents, i.e. Democrats.

A worker puts up banners depicting Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of a campaign by a pro-annexation group, in Jerusalem on June 10, 2020.
A worker puts up banners depicting Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of a campaign by a pro-annexation group, in Jerusalem on June 10, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

At this point, Netanyahu is not a factor in the U.S. election campaign. That may change if he pushes ahead with annexation in the West Bank, but only slightly. Netanyahu’s alliance with Trump could become a significant campaign issue only if he actively intervenes on the president’s behalf, which, unfortunately, could very well happen.

But even if the Trump-Netanyahu axis ends up playing no role whatsoever in the election campaign, the prime minister’s day of reckoning is due on November 3. A Trump victory, which seems increasingly unlikely, would promise four more years of unabashed pro-Israel policies and would be perceived in Israel as yet another triumph for Netanyahu. A win for Biden would launch a new and potentially precarious era in U.S.-Israel relations. Domestically, it would reflect badly on Netanyahu himself.

This would be true even if Trump hadn’t embarked on his campaign to sow fear and loathing between between Americans who are white or Black; liberal or conservative; Republican or Democratic; and so on. But the price that Israel may have to pay for Netanyahu’s reckless identification with Trump and with the Republican right wing could increase dramatically if Biden’s victory caps a campaign that pits one part of America against the other.

An image of George Floyd is projected on a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., June 8, 2020.
An image of George Floyd is projected on a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va., June 8, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Maintaining the U.S.-Israel alliance in its current form was going to be a challenge for a Biden administration in any case. The rising radical-progressive wing of the Democratic Party is divided between those who oppose Israel because of Netanyahu and his right-wing, annexationist and anti-democratic policies and those who oppose Israel’s very existence. More moderate Democrats may be less strenuously opposed to Netanyahu’s policies and are certainly less eager to change the fundamentals of the U.S-Israel alliance, but they haven’t forgotten or forgiven the prime minister for his disrespectful clashes with Barack Obama or for his ongoing romance with Trump.

The task of navigating a path between traditional Democratic support and the antipathy of surging radicals will be even tougher in the aftermath of a divisive campaign that pits one political camp against the other. When conflict is absolute and all-encompassing, advocating nuance, moderation or restraint is a mission impossible, never mind atonement, turning a blind eye, or rebooting the U.S.-Israel relationship before Netanyahu – and Israel – get the punishment they supposedly deserve.

In a polarized atmosphere laced with growing mutual hostility, Netanyahu, and Israel by extension, will be increasingly identified not only with Trump but with his race-baiting campaign, as well. Israel will be tainted willy-nilly by Trump’s white supremacism, hostility towards protests and antipathy towards Black Lives Matter. It will be identified with Trump’s incitement against liberals, Congress and the rule of law. In the eyes of many Democrats, it will be placed only a hair’s breadth away from Trump’s GOP enablers.

President Donald Trump delivers a speech South Lawn of the White House, Saturday, July 4, 2020.
President Donald Trump delivers a speech South Lawn of the White House, Saturday, July 4, 2020.Credit: Patrick Semansky,AP

When the only option is whether one is with us or against us, Netanyahu and Israel will be firmly entrenched among those whom Democrats view as their sworn enemies.

Even if he wanted to – and he apparently doesn’t – Netanyahu would be hard-pressed at this point to escape the collision course that his policies have created between Israel and Democrats, liberals and radicals alike. Now he can only watch helplessly as Trump ups the ante, pitting Americans against themselves and guaranteeing that if and when Biden wins, Israel’s inevitable crash will be harder, costlier and, in a worst-case scenario, fatal for the future of U.S.-Israeli ties as we’ve come to know them.

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