Netanyahu plays a ‘Trump card’ as Israeli elections near
JERUSALEM — In a tight race for re-election, Israel’s prime minister has gotten a welcome lift from his friend in the White House.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign speeches, billboards and social media videos have all heavily featured President Donald Trump’s image, statements and pro-Israel actions as endorsements of the long-seated prime minister.
Drawing inspiration from Trump, Netanyahu has dismissed a corruption case against him as a “witch hunt” and his Likud party has launched a weekly webcast to counter what it claims is “fake news” broadcast by mainstream media.
For Netanyahu, the close ties with Trump are a welcome change after eight frosty years with the Obama administration, which repeatedly clashed with the prime minister over his policies toward the Palestinians and his opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Upon taking office two years ago, Trump quickly reversed course and established a tight relationship with Netanyahu. This has yielded benefits for Netanyahu on the campaign trail.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, Netanyahu has hosted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Trump in the White House and received American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Mideast war.
Those moves are seen as an unspoken U.S. endorsement of Netanyahu, and in Israel, having close ties with whoever occupies the White House is seen as a major asset.
Trump enjoys strong support among Israelis, 69% of whom expressed confidence in the president’s ability “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” according to a Pew Research Center poll published in October.
That support largely springs from Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the opening of the U.S. Embassy there. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and his decision to slash U.S. aid to the Palestinians are also popular among Israelis.
A YouTube ad published April 1 strings together Trump statements from recent years extolling Netanyahu’s leadership as a “great prime minister.”
“Benjamin Netanyahu, there’s nobody like him,” Trump says in a clip taken from a 2013 video. Building-sized billboards in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv show the two leaders shaking hands.
A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 63% of Israelis “believe that Netanyahu’s standing in the current election campaign will be strengthened by the U.S. recognition” of the annexation of the Golan Heights. The survey interviewed 603 people and had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
While the gambit has played well domestically, Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump risk undermining bipartisan support for Israel among Americans, and Israel’s relationship with traditionally liberal American Jews.
More than 70 percent of American Jews voted against Trump, and many express unease about U.S.-Israel relations becoming too closely associated with the friendship between two polarizing leaders.
The April 9 election is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s decade-long rule, and his campaign is using the relationship with Trump to portray him as a respected statesman with personal ties to world leaders.
In an Instagram video posted Wednesday, Netanyahu touts his administration’s “unprecedented diplomatic advancements,” foremost among them “strengthening relations with the United States,” but also closer ties with Russia, China, India, Japan and Brazil.
On Thursday, Netanyahu paid a surprise visit to Russia, where President Vladimir Putin announced his country’s instrumental role in recovering the remains of an Israeli soldier who went missing in action in Lebanon in 1982.
The return of the soldier’s remains, along with a visit this week by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has given Netanyahu another diplomatic victory late in the campaign.
Netanyahu seeks a fourth consecutive term in office as Israel’s leader. If re-elected, he will become the country’s longest serving prime minister, outstripping its founding father, David Ben Gurion. The prime minister’s campaign has steamed ahead despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s recommendation last month that Netanyahu be indicted for a series of corruption charges. /gsg
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.