Despite what can only be described as a bruising year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to hold on to power after Tuesday’s elections in his country.
Even Netanyahu — possibly in a bid to turn out votes — made the claim that he might lose. But Wednesday morning found Netanyahu triumphant, with voters handing him a fifth term in office.
Although a strong economy and security issues were key factors in that victory, there’s little doubt that the unswerving support of President Donald Trump helped. In fact, Trump shared proof of his influence in the election on Wednesday:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2019
“As he [Netanyahu] has become increasingly unpopular among the leaders of the world’s liberal democracies, he’s relying on strong support from right-wing figures — none more so than President Trump,” said Logan Bayroff, a spokesman for J Street, the liberal Jewish organization.
He pointed out that over the past two years, Trump has been handing “gift after gift” to Netanyahu.
Trump did everything he could to keep Netanyahu in office short of casting a vote: He recognized Jerusalem — a disputed territory that is subject to negotiation — as the Israeli capital. He cut aid to Palestinian refugees and shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington, D.C., office. When Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinian protesters in Gaza last year, the White House called their deaths “a propaganda attempt” and blamed Hamas instead. And just last month, Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel shortly before the election, and generally speaking, such a visit is seen as trying to influence the outcome of an election (which, the Trump administration, rather openly, was). And the Trump administration’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (Netanyahu’s bête noire) as a terrorist organization just one day before the election certainly didn’t hurt the the prime minister’s cause.
Trump joined a circle of populist leaders around the world supporting Netanyahu, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”), Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Netanyahu clearly sought an alliance of the hardliners.
Trump demonstrated a willingness to extend his influence to keep a hardliner like Netanyahu in power — ostensibly to serve his own Evangelical voters in the United States, a key base in his 2020 reelection campaign.
“Certainly, they [the Trump administration] prioritize their domestic political concerns regarding Israel, and basically, giving it a blank check because that’s popular with the Evangelical base, over any kind of policy rationale that makes sense,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
He pointed out that while Netanyahu is “a better campaigner” and successfully sold his security portfolio to voters, “The Trump administration played a meaningful role in tipping the scales in his [Netanyahu’s] direction.”
“Netanyahu’s entire campaign was about how he was the best choice to protect Israel, internationally, and first and foremost, that starts with his relationship with Donald Trump. There were signs of him and Trump all over Israel. He got his Oval Office meeting like two weeks before and he even got the annexation of the Golan, strictly for political reasons,” said Goldenberg.
Peace plan, schmeace plan
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, Trump congratulated Netanyahu on his victory and said that having him in office will increase the odds for peace between Israel and Palestine.
“The fact that Bibi won I think we’ll see some pretty good action in terms of peace,” Trump said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “Look, everyone said — I never made it a promise — but everybody said you can’t have peace in the Middle East with Israel and the Palestinians. I think we have a chance. I think we have now a better chance with Bibi having won.”
Bayroff said there’s been a lot of skepticism that what the Trump administration will be delivering is really a peace plan.
“What it seems far more likely to be … is a series of positions and proposals that are designed to adopt right-wing Israeli positions as U.S. government positions, to fully alienate the Palestinians and to push them away from the table, and to help undermine the global consensus in support of a two-state solution,” said Byroff.
But the details of that peace plan — created by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner — remain vague. What we do know is that it is very late (possibly coming in June), and, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, “a dead paper.”
“It’s not clear to me that they want a peace plan or a two state solution, but why are they doing it or whether they think they can achieve that objective is a massive stretch… If you want to push for a peace plan, strong support for Bibi Netanyahu and a far-right government is not the way to do it, ” said Goldenberg.
The peace plan might even be driven by the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and other pro-settler elements within the Trump administration who want to see the peace plan fail, said Goldenberg. That failure “can become the basis for them giving Israel the green light to start annexing parts of the West Bank,” he added, as Netanyahu promised just days before the election.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement on Tuesday that Israelis had voted “no to peace.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not cooperate with the Trump administration’s peace plan.
“It’s dead on arrival with the Palestinians,” said Goldenberg, adding, “It’s hard to know if they’re even going to put it down.”