American presidential visits to Israel are supposed to be “historic” events, focused on deep symbolism and the mythical “shared values” of the two nations. Joe Biden’s arrival on Wednesday will be no exception. But beneath all the pomp and circumstance, there is always politics as usual. Or in this case, not so usual.
Biden’s trip was planned and scheduled with then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. But it is taking place under a different premier, Yair Lapid, who is facing a bitter fight to remain in office against a former prime minister who is now leader of the opposition and his defense minister. The two Benjamins vying to replace Lapid (Netanyahu and Gantz) are each hoping to get a bit of presidential stardust, but most of it will fall on Lapid as the lucky incumbent. Will it help at all when Election Day arrives on November 1?
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History is an uncertain guide to the influence U.S. presidents have had over Israeli domestic politics. The most striking example is that of Bill Clinton.
In March 1996, when a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks began eating away at the 20-percent margin Shimon Peres enjoyed over Benjamin Netanyahu in the polls, Clinton rode to the rescue. He flew from Washington to Sharm el-Sheikh, where the Summit of Peacemakers – leaders and foreign ministers of 27 countries, including Arab nations whose representatives had never met openly with Israelis before – gathered. From there, Clinton and Peres flew together on Air Force One to Ben Gurion Airport.
In Israel, they visited Yitzhak Rabin’s grave in Jerusalem and appeared in front of 1,000 students in Tel Aviv. “Overcome fear, don’t give into it, don’t give up hope, don’t let the terrorists win,” Clinton implored. Before he took off back to Washington, Clinton whispered to Peres at the airport: “I hope my visit helped.” Two and a half months later, Peres lost to Netanyahu by a narrowest of margins.
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Clinton said to one of his aides, “You can’t push people faster than they’re ready to go. If they’re not ready for peace, there’s not much you can do about it.”
Three years later he tried again, though this time with a bit more care. Clinton sent some of his own campaign advisers to work for the challenger, Ehud Barak, and on the eve of the election exhorted Israelis to “vote for peace.” Netanyahu’s first term had been inept and chaotic, and Barak – who was seen as a steady pair of hands – won handily with a 12 percent margin. He had hardly needed Clinton, if at all. But at the same time, the obvious dislike Clinton had for Netanyahu didn’t help the incumbent.
Clinton may have failed twice to sway Israeli elections, but that doesn’t mean American presidents have never influenced campaigns here. George H.W. Bush’s open hostility toward Yitzhak Shamir, and their clash over the loan securities Israelis needed to fund the absorption of a million new immigrants from the crumbling Soviet Union, certainly played a role – if not a central one – in sealing Rabin’s victory in 1992.
In more recent times, Netanyahu got a boost out of being seen as Donald Trump’s close partner. Likud’s pollsters thought so, at least, which is why the party’s campaign in the second election of 2019 featured so many photographs of Netanyahu and Trump together. Yet of the three elections in the 2019-20 cycle, that was the one in which Likud did worst.
On the flip side, it didn’t seem as if Netanyahu’s rocky relationship with Barack Obama throughout eight years caused him much electoral harm. In fact, there are some close to Netanyahu who believe that since Obama was perceived by a majority of Israelis as being hostile to their country’s interests (partly due to the way Netanyahu’s allies and proxies portrayed him in the media), Netanyahu actually gained from being seen standing up to him.
Of the three contenders to be Israel’s next prime minister, Lapid is the one Biden would most like to continue dealing with over the next two years. But there is little he can do to help that happen and Biden, who is more knowledgeable on Israeli politics than any of his predecessors, knows that.
At most, he can help provide Lapid with a few photo opportunities to make the new prime minister appear a bit more statesmanlike to skeptical voters. But in three and a half months, when Israelis finally go to the polls, that will be long forgotten.