With New Resident in the White House, These Israeli Elections Will Be Different
Experts are divided on whether US President Joe Biden will try to tip the scales in favor of any candidate
President Joe Biden was sworn in on Wednesday as the 46th president of the United States, turning a new page in American history after four tumultuous years that culminated in one of the most contentious and ugliest election cycles ever.
Yet while the US prepares to move on from the controversial campaign, one of its closest allies, Israel, is just entering its own.
In two months, the Israeli people will head to the polls for the fourth time in two years, as the political stalemate it confronted in 2019, and which seemed for a fleeting moment to be resolved last May, continues in full force.
But not all is the same in this endless cycle. For the first time since 2015, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, already dogged by a challenging political landscape and a crippling corruption trial, will run for office without his trusted friend occupying the White House.
In the previous three rounds, Netanyahu knew he could rely on President Donald Trump. Time and again, the former president came through for the embattled Israeli premier, offering diplomatic and political gestures aimed at bolstering Netanyahu’s standing in the polls mere days before Election Day.
In late March 2019, with less than two weeks remaining before the first round of Israeli elections, Trump announced his decision to officially recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 war.
In January 2020, a month before the third election, Trump called a special summit at the White House to unroll his Mideast peace plan. The proposal, which skewed heavily in Israel’s favor, was rejected outright by the Palestinian Authority, which refused to even attend the ceremony or participate in the preliminary meetings.
Netanyahu, to no one’s surprise, wasted no time in featuring his Washington trip and the Golan Heights declaration in his campaign material, boasting of his special ties with the leader of the free world and his ability to elicit more gifts from the president than any of his competitors.
Trump’s involvement in Israeli campaigns, while perhaps the most obvious and unapologetic, was certainly not the first time a sitting US president attempted to tip the scale in one side’s favor.
Presidents can also punish, instead of giving gifts
“It’s not unprecedented at all,” Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the US under Netanyahu, told The Media Line. “Clinton was exceptional about this, really open about it. When [Netanyahu] was elected in 1996, the first thing he said was ‘I’m not going to deal with [US ambassador to Israel] Martin Indyk,’ because of his open support for Shimon Peres,” the Labor party nominee.
Former President Barack Obama came to Israel in 2013 “and made a speech where he called on people to protest against their own government! That was incredible,” Oren added.
“Presidents can also punish, instead of giving gifts,” Oren said, noting that former President George H.W. Bush did that to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. “A lot of people say that Shamir lost because he fell out with Bush” he said, referring to the 1992 elections.
As for whether President Biden will follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and involve himself in Israel’s upcoming elections, experts were split.
Biden is very strong on restoring the idea of Israel as a bipartisan issue. It’s a priority for him.
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“I doubt very highly that Biden would make the same mistakes Trump made,” Elana Sztokman, vice chair for media relations and policy for Democrats Abroad in Israel, told The Media Line. “That wasn’t sound foreign policy. Biden is very strong on restoring the idea of Israel as a bipartisan issue. It’s a priority for him.”
“I think he’ll stay out of it,” Oren agreed. “He may adopt policies that will make things maybe a bit more difficult for Netanyahu, like rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. That’ll definitely affect the elections. Netanyahu’s adversaries would in that case say ‘you failed.’ But Biden won’t do it because of that, but just because it’s his policy.”
Marc Zell, chairman of Republicans Overseas Israel, believes that “many of the people advising [Biden] are champing at the bit” to tip the scales against Netanyahu, “because they did it before, during the Obama administration.”
“I certainly hope they won’t, I hope they’ve learned their lesson and won’t interfere with the elections, but that may be wishful thinking,” Zell added.
Netanyahu may not require any assistance at all. While he does face a tough task in gaining enough seats to form a government, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history currently does not have a clear challenger.
The opposing center-left wing, decimated by in-house fighting and splintered into a handful of small, and even smaller, parties, has yet to produce a candidate to unite and lead the camp, similar to Benny Gantz in 2019.
Netanyahu’s problems likely will come from within his own right wing.
Former Likud lawmaker and prominent politician Gideon Saar last month formed a new party and declared his intention to unseat his former colleague and party boss. He has since added several Likud lawmakers to his list, and appears poised to nab 20 seats, enough, perhaps, to precipitate Netanyahu’s defeat.
If the prime minister does manage to retain his seat, he’ll face an entirely different landscape on his next trip to Washington.
Netanyahu is “an expert politician and statesman,” Zell said. “I think he recognizes that the playing field has changed, and he has to adjust accordingly. I have every confidence he will be able to gauge the political map accurately and adapt accordingly.”
Zell said that the Israeli leader’s “cordial relations, on a personal level, with Biden” will enable him to establish a working relationship with the administration.
“While they disagree fundamentally on policy matters, they seem to have a fairly friendly, amicable relationship. It’s a good start,” he added.
For whoever ascends the political throne in Jerusalem on March 23, Sztokman said, “if they choose to be smart about their relationship with the president, will find the door open to them.