Analysis

Bringing It Home for Bibi: A Short History of U.S. Intervention in Israeli Elections

Washington has a history of trying to sway voter opinion in Israel, not always in the directions Jerusalem finds most convenient

U.S. President Donald Trump stands with Netanyahu during a ceremony to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in Washington, on Monday, March 25, 2019.
Susan Walsh / AP

WASHINGTON — Millions of Israelis are going to the polls for the second time this year, after the election in April failed to deliver a clear result. One element clearly boosting the campaign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking a fifth term in office, has been U.S. President Donald Trump. 

On Saturday, 72 hours before the Israeli polls opened, Trump gave Netanyahu and his Likud party one final gift: Tweeting about discussions for a potential U.S.-Israeli defense pact.

The Likud placed Trump and his relationship with Netanyahu at the center of its campaigning. Billboards around the country show the two leaders shaking hands. Netanyahu boasted this weekend that Trump “endorsed” him and has brought up his relationship with the Republican president in each and every interview he has given ahead of Election Day. 

Netanyahu's campaign evidently hopes the “Trump factor” will help overcome the corruption charges against him and a sense of popular fatigue with him after over a decade in office.

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Ahead of the April election, Trump’s involvement was even more prominent. Just two weeks before that poll, the U.S. president recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, in a highly publicized event with Netanyahu in the White House.

Trump also publicly praised Netanyahu as a “great” leader during the April election and shared a picture of Netanyahu’s campaign posters, showing them together, on his social media accounts. 

Also ahead of the first election this year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Jerusalem and was taken by Netanyahu to tour the Western Wall, becoming the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the site. Images of the Golan Heights recognition event and Pompeo’s tour with Netanyahu were used by the prime minister’s campaign to boost his image as a supposedly indispensable statesman. 

A Likud party election campaign banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with U.S. President Donald Trump is seen in Jerusalem September 15, 2019.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Another leading American whose visit before the April poll was also exploited was John Bolton — the national security adviser Trump just fired, mainly because of disagreements over the president's Iran policy. 

Despite all that help, Netanyahu couldn't form a majority coalition in the Knesset after the April election, even though Trump even intervened on Netanyahu’s behalf during the government negotiations, tweeting to urge that a coalition form before the deadline expired. 

When Netanyahu’s failure became official and Israel headed for a new election, Trump expressed frustration, saying that Israelis “need to get their act together.” Shortly after the new election was announced at the end of May, Bolton came back to Israel — this time together with his Russian counterpart.

Their joint visit, the first of its kind, was described by Netanyahu as “historic.” Until last week, Netanyahu was trying to organize a similar visit ahead of this week’s election. But Trump inadvertently put paid to that intent by firing Bolton. 

Coaxing gifts from Washington 

Following Netanyahu's failure to build a coalition in the spring, the second election campaign took place in the summer, a time typically more characterized by going to the beach than following political developments.

Trump was much less involved this time around. There were no high-profile visits by U.S. officials to Israel, and Netanyahu did not visit the United States. He continued to use Trump in his election propaganda, but also added other world leaders to the “roster” of his posters, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

But as the deadline approached, Netanyahu — who began the election down in the polls — stepped up pressure on the Trump administration to somehow help him, in the spirit of the gestures Trump made before the April election. Netanyahu, as Haaretz reported two weeks ago, discussed several options with close advisers to Trump: From an announcement that he and Trump were negotiating over a potential defense pact between the two countries, to U.S. recognition of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank

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Those negotiations suffered a setback when Trump fired Bolton, who was personally involved in the discussions. But on Saturday, Trump finally delivered something for Netanyahu when he tweeted that they spoke over the phone about a future defense pact, and that they will continue those discussions after the Israeli election. 

The content of Trump’s tweet was almost identical to what Haaretz originally reported as the most likely election gesture: A general announcement about a future intention to sign a defense pact, with no binding commitments or specific details. Many Israeli analysts deem the tweet a paler, less significant gesture than those Trump gave Netanyahu before the April election. 

Even so, Netanyahu hailed Trump’s tweet as a diplomatic achievement and dismissed criticism from former Israeli defense chiefs that a defense pact would constrain Israel’s military options in the future. When Benny Gantz, the head of Kahol Lavan and his main challenger in the election — and who also happens to be a former chief of staff — said much the same, Netanyahu’s people accused him of politicizing national security.

An ingrained habit of meddling

Trump isn’t the first U.S. politician to intervene in Israeli elections. The habit has a long history, even if it could be argued that Trump has taken it to new heights. 

Then U.S. President Bill Clinton and PM Shimon Peres sign a joint declaration on terrorism one month before the 1996 election where the Peres lost to Netanyahu, in Washington, on April 30, 1996. 
Associated Press

Mere days before the 1996 Israeli election, President Bill Clinton convened an international peace summit to which then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres was invited, alongside leaders from the Arab world.

Clinton hoped the conference would help Peres defeat Netanyahu, who was then running in his first election campaign. But Netanyahu managed to snatch a narrow victory despite Clinton’s immense popularity in Israel.

Three years later, Clinton made no efforts to conceal the fact that he wanted Ehud Barak, who challenged Netanyahu in the 1999 election, to win. That time, the 42nd president got to see Netanyahu ousted from office. 

The next U.S. president, George W. Bush, did not personally interfere in Israeli elections, though he had strong relationships with the two Israeli prime ministers who served during his term: Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Both ran against Netanyahu and defeated him: Sharon in an internal Likud primary in 2002; and Olmert in the 2006 general election.(Sharon did hire one of Bush’s campaign advisers, Stuart Stevens, to work on his own campaigns.)

However, Washington's involvement in Israeli politics spiraled to new levels in the decade since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009. That election victory and two subsequent wins in 2013 and 2015 were helped by the support of Israel Hayom, a newspaper that Netanyahu’s political partners on the Israeli right have compared to the Soviet propaganda newspaper Pravda. Israel Hayom is distributed for free and bankrolled by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a prominent donor to Republican politicians in America. 

Meanwhile, Netanyahu accused the Obama administration of trying to torpedo him in the 2015 election (which he won). He charged that the administration supported NGOs in Israel working to persuade Arab and secular Israelis to vote, those being communities unlikely to support Likud and the other right-wing parties. Unlike Bill Clinton, however, Obama wasn’t particularly popular in Israel: Netanyahu benefited politically from portraying him as a threat to his rule. 

For the 2015 election, Netanyahu enlisted his Republican allies in the U.S. Congress by organizing an invitation for himself to address a joint session of Congress just two weeks before Election Day. The speech, about Iran, received high ratings on Israeli television channels and helped Netanyahu portray himself as capable of standing up to Obama. (His speech didn’t stop Obama from achieving the number of votes in Congress that he needed in order to sign the nuclear deal with Iran several months later.)

Three days before Election Day in 2015, Netanyahu got another Republican assist: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas vowed to investigate the Obama administration’s intervention in the Israeli election. The report made national headlines in Israel at a crucial time for Netanyahu, who entered the last stretch of the campaign behind in the polls. 

In the second campaign of 2019, Netanyahu is counting on those joint images with Trump to keep right-wing voters behind him — and this time, Trump could also play a significant role during the stage of coalition negotiations.

If neither Netanyahu nor Gantz can build a stable coalition by themselves, which seems a likely outcome, Trump could help solve the political impasse. He could finally release his administration’s long-awaited peace plan and give the two would-be leaders the perfect excuse to form a unity government.