The election campaign that Israel got pulled into like some drowning man sucked into a whirlpool will revolve around one simple question: Are you for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or against him? Will the accumulating critical mass of Israeli public disdain for Netanyahu, who has governed the country for almost six consecutive years (and a total of almost nine years), suffice for him to be uprooted from the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem? Will politicians on the right such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, former Minister Moshe Kahlon (who started a new party) and maybe even Shas party leader Aryeh Deri agree to become ''camp crossers'' and “tiebreakers,” allowing the center-left bloc to form a government in Israel?
Disdain toward Netanyahu will not be enough to remove him from power. With the Israeli public still moving to the right, even if Netanyahu is defeated, he may still be able to put together a coalition, given the fact that together with the ultra-Orthodox, Economy and Trade Minister and HaBayit HaYehudi party leader Naftali Bennett, and one or two other parties (Liberman, Kahlon), he will be able to cross the 61-seat majority threshold and put his fourth government together.
In all this commotion, there will be one surprising issue to gain special attention: the relationship between Israel and the United States. Elections in Israel are usually decided on other issues: the security situation, the economic situation, or the personality of the opponents. This time it seems as if the relationship between Israel and its biggest, most important ally will take up a major slice of the campaign.
Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid and the former Finance Minister sacked by Netanyahu, fired the opening shot Dec. 3 in a speech he delivered at a prime-time news conference. He used the speech to get back at Netanyahu for an address Netanyahu delivered one day earlier. Lapid referred to Netanyahu as being “out of touch” on 12 separate occasions during the speech. He also brought up the “unprecedented low” in the relationship between Israel and the United States. “You caused an ongoing severe damage to the strategic alliance between Israel and the US,” said Lapid. “Senators call me to find out about your patronizing and disparaging treatment of our best friend in the world, whose relationship with us is our greatest security asset. Go explain to them that you're so disconnected that you think America is stuck in the '80s. At one point, you understood America, but America has changed, and you are disconnected.”
It wasn’t the first time that Lapid brought up the damage that Netanyahu has caused to Israel’s relationship with the White House. During a Cabinet meeting in August, Lapid was very critical of the prime minister and the damage he caused to that important relationship. He said that given the current state of affairs, Lapid himself was keeping frequent, direct communications with many figures in the American administration, and even maintaining an ongoing channel of communication with Washington through the (effective and very popular) American ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and with senior White House officials.
As someone who arrogantly repeated throughout his career, “No one in Israel understands America better than me,” Netanyahu took this criticism especially hard. In the last conversation between him and Lapid on Nov. 30, which was followed by the collapse of the coalition, Netanyahu attacked Lapid severely over his public criticism against him on the American issue. Lapid defended himself, saying, “I have no intention of shutting up about this. I am head of the largest faction in the Knesset and therefore have a responsibility. I told you that when it comes to the important issues, we will not be able to stay silent and keep from stating our opinions.”
The last time that the relationship between Israel and the United States played a part in an Israeli election was in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush gave Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud the cold shoulder and refused to grant international guarantees amounting to $10 billion. Israel needed the guarantees to absorb the mass immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union. In 1999 as well, when Netanyahu was defeated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, it was obvious to everyone that President Bill Clinton loathed the prime minister. However, since Netanyahu was one of the most despised politicians in Israel at the time, his relationship with Clinton did not have a decisive effect on the elections. Netanyahu would have lost anyway.
Netanyahu’s people, including senior ministers in the government, do make efforts to defend him. “You can’t just blame Bibi [Netanyahu] for everything,” one senior minister told me this week. “In this particular instance, it is obvious that President [Barack] Obama played a large role in the deterioration of the relationship. It is inconceivable that his infallibility is limited to the Israeli issue. The Americans haven’t missed a single mistake in the past six years, starting with the unnecessary freeze on construction in the territories (2009-10), through the Kerry Initiative, and various other instances. It’s not just Bibi.”
There are some logical problems with this argument, as a senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem explained: “First of all, we must never forget that it’s not just Obama. Netanyahu had the same exact relationship with Bill Clinton, and as president, Clinton was exceptionally supportive of Israel. We must not forget that when it comes to defense, Obama actually upgraded the relationship with Israel to an unprecedented level.” But there is something else as well: “It is quite possible that the clash between Obama and Netanyahu was inevitable,” said a seasoned Israeli diplomat, who served also in various positions in Washington. “The problem is that Bibi [Netanyahu] was not satisfied with having differences of opinion with the Americans in matters concerning diplomacy and defense. He also insisted on intervening in the US election campaign. Add to that,” the diplomat continued, “the frequent times that Netanyahu or one of his people (such as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon) publicly insulted senior American officials or started new fights on a weekly basis, and you get what we have now.”
The question is whether the Americans will resist the temptation to also intervene in the election campaign in Israel, just as Netanyahu intervened in the American election campaign just two years ago.
“I am willing to admit that it is very tempting,” an American official told me two weeks ago, “but it runs counter to our DNA. I find it hard to believe that the administration will get itself in tangled up with sweeping or obvious statements about it.” Yet despite this assessment, there have already been some interesting American statements about the elections in Israel, such as statements expressing hope that the next government formed in Israel will advance the peace process. While this may be a very clear hint, it is not enough to have a real impact on the elections.
“The US has a vast arsenal of means to impact the Israeli election,” one senior diplomatic source told me this week. “The Americans can announce that they will not veto the next vote in the Security Council, they could issue public denunciations, and they could release as yet untold stories about how low the relationship has sunk, such as sharing additional details about the decision to delay armament shipments to Israel during Operation Protective Edge. They could use the Europeans, or they could host Netanyahu’s rivals such as Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, Avigdor Liberman, Yair Lapid, etc., at the White House. There is no end to the ways in which the US could have an impact,” he said.
The question then is: Will any of this actually happen? Will the dark temper that has been running of late between Washington and Jerusalem and the open account between Obama and Netanyahu be enough to convince a “cold fish” like Obama to go out of his way to depose Netanyahu? It seems to me that quite a few Israelis who do not support Netanyahu will activate in the coming weeks all their persuasive power vis-à-vis their American friends, expressing one single wish: Please get involved. Help us.
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