Trump’s Previous 'Election Gifts' to Netanyahu Didn’t Pay Off, but This One Could

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, March 25, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, March 25, 2019. Credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his ambassador to Israel David Friedman have dramatically intervened in Israel’s election campaign by inviting  Benjamin Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz to Washington to discuss the U.S. administration’s “deal of the century”– which the White House describes as a plan for “Middle East peace.”

Trump has intervened in Israel’s three election campaigns several times over the past year, with each foray beneficial to the prime minister and harmful to his political rivals. Thursday’s announcement of next week’s meeting set a new bar for an “election gift” from Trump to Netanyahu, joining a long list of actions and statements that have buoyed Netanyahu’s campaigns.

The biggest benefit from Thursday’s news is the timing. The administration’s diplomatic vision for Israel and the Palestinians was completed more than a year ago but was kept on the shelf as the administration waited for the right moment to release it. After a year of delays and deliberations, Trump’s team decided to publish the plan the exact day the Knesset is scheduled to hold a vote that could determine Netanyahu’s legal and political future. They insist it’s purely a coincidence.

The vote on whether to convene the committee for discussing Netanyahu’s request for immunity from his three corruption indictments could still take place, though Netanyahu’s Likud party is trying to delay it in light of the diplomatic developments in Washington. But even if the committee meets, the event will be overshadowed by the pictures of Trump and Netanyahu in the White House.

The White House also invited Gantz to come to Washington, but Vice President Mike Pence made sure to belittle the retired army chief – whose party won more seats than Netanyahu’s in the previous election in September – by stating that the idea to invite Gantz was Netanyahu’s. Most Israeli pundits are describing Gantz’s arrival as a honey trap set up by Netanyahu and the Kushner team to embarrass and humiliate him in front of the cameras.

In recent weeks, as the White House debated whether to release its plan before Israelis go to the polls on March 2, administration officials insisted that if the blueprint is indeed presented, it won’t become an election gift to Netanyahu. The administration intended to argue that Kushner and others in the administration had spent years working on the plan, and they weren’t going to squander it ahead of an Israeli election simply to help Netanyahu escape his indictments. The timing of the Netanyahu-Gantz summit next week and the way Pence announced it cast doubt on those claims.

Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to become an active player in an Israeli election. Bill Clinton did it twice, in 1996 and 1999, and both times it was an attempt to help the Labor Party defeat Netanyahu. In 1996, Clinton’s help wasn’t enough, and then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres lost to Netanyahu. Three years later, Clinton – who was very popular in Israel – signaled to Israeli voters that he preferred Ehud Barak over Netanyahu, and Barak trounced the incumbent.

But Trump has set new records when it comes to U.S. involvement in Israeli elections, mostly because he has witnessed three elections in less than a year, an unprecedented situation for Israel. In both campaigns he came through for Netanyahu but his involvement wasn’t enough for the prime minister to form a new governing coalition.

Before last year’s April election, Trump praised Netanyahu and shared on social media a picture of giant billboards in Israel showing the two leaders together – part of Likud’s election campaign. Trump also sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel during the campaign, and Pompeo went with Netanyahu to the Western Wall.

The height of Trump’s involvement came two weeks before the polls when he invited Netanyahu to the White House to attend his declaration recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. That event made headlines in Israel, but coverage was cut short when a rocket fired from Gaza landed on a house north of Tel Aviv.

Benjamin Netanyahu applauds as Donald Trump holds a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Washington, DC, March 25, 2019Credit: CARLOS BARRIA/ REUTERS

Still, all those gestures weren’t enough: After the election, while the prime minister was scrambling to put together a government before his time ran out, Trump once again tried to come to the rescue by tweeting how great it would be if a government was formed in Israel. But Netanyahu fell one seat short and Israel went to a second election.

During the second campaign, Trump’s involvement was less dramatic than in the spring. Early in the second campaign, he sent John Bolton, then his national security adviser, to Jerusalem for a meeting with Netanyahu and Russia’s national security adviser. Later he sent Kushner to Israel, as the administration considered whether to publish what Trump called the “deal of the century,” but eventually the White House decided to wait. In both cases, the visits by the senior Trump advisers were used by Netanyahu’s campaign to elevate his image as a statesman and attack his rivals.

In the campaign’s final weeks, Netanyahu sought another “gift” from Trump; one option he discussed was support for Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley. Instead, just three days before Election Day, the two leaders spoke on the phone, and Trump released a tweet touting a joint defense pact after the vote. Netanyahu described that discussion as a “historic” opportunity, but after the election, when Netanyahu once again failed to form a government, the issue disappeared from the Israeli public debate.

It’s too early to predict the impact of Trump’s latest move. The latest polls show that Israel’s political deadlock is continuing; neither Netanyahu nor Gantz have a clear path to form a government. Soon we will know if this time Trump’s involvement helped Netanyahu secure a coalition – and an escape route from his legal troubles.

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