Will Trump drag Netanyahu down with him?

Opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are claiming the downfall of US President Donald Trump heralds the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well.

al-monitor Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

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joe biden, us-israel relations, israeli politics, israeli elections, us elections, coronavirus, benjamin netanyahu, donald trump

Nov 10, 2020

Three days after Joe Biden was declared president-elect of the United States, the Twitter account of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still features a photo of defeated President Donald Trump in its banner. Trump will be leaving the White House in two and a half months.

Netanyahu is sufficiently experienced and self-aware to know that the president can still take major steps in the Middle East and counter Iranian ambitions in ways that will help him politically, but nothing is simple. This weekend, Netanyahu found himself caught between his good friend Trump, who refused to admit defeat, and President-elect Joe Biden, with whom he will have to work in the very near future.

While European leaders were quick to congratulation Biden, Netanyahu held back for half a day. Those 12 hours were long enough to be problematic for the new administration. Finally, on the morning of Nov. 7, Netanyahu tweeted a short congratulatory message.

Shortly thereafter, Netanyahu again offered his congratulations at the start of last Sunday’s cabinet meeting. He read from a written statement, likely out of caution not to anger Trump. Netanyahu congratulated Biden without using the term “president-elect.” In just 43 carefully chosen words, he recalled their good past relationship. In contrast, he spent 53 effusive words on Trump, listing everything he did for Israel and emphasizing their personal friendship. It was obvious who Netanyahu would prefer to see in the White House and that he is having a hard time saying goodbye to his friend.

Netanyahu is being forced to take leave of a president who had fulfilled all his dreams. Trump made Netanyahu feel more at home in Washington than any other president before him. For the past few years, Netanyahu abandoned decades of Israeli bipartisanship. He disregarded the longstanding tradition of never taking a stand in American politics. During the Trump years, relations between Netanyahu and the Democrats deteriorated so much that they could be described as mutual alienation.

The dynamic has now become an Achilles’ heel. In many ways, the fall of Trump is seen in Israel as a major blow to Netanyahu, with dramatic consequences for his public appeal and even his chances of being reelected. The next time the country heads to the polls, Netanyahu will not be able to brandish his friend in the White House and all the gifts that Trump showered on him.

The biggest question in Israeli politics today is whether the end of the Trump era signals the end of Netanyahu too. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis haunted him in the election. Will the same happen to Netanyahu?

Opposition leader Yair Lapid has seized the opportunity. He opened the Nov. 9 meeting of his Yesh Atid-Telem faction by saying, “Despite all the fears that people are trying to spread here, Biden is not some radical leftist. Politically, he is a classic centrist. The problem facing Israel is enormous anger that the Democrats feel toward Netanyahu and his government. They claim, and rightfully so, that Netanyahu transformed Israel into a branch of the Republican Party. I warned him repeatedly that he is misreading the political map there. While he abandoned his ties with them, I actually strengthened my ties.”

In the last few elections, Netanyahu’s opponents could not argue that he was ruining Israel’s relationship with the White House. Now, they can finally strike at what used to be the prime minister’s strong point. Lapid and other opposition figures will now be able to ride the American people's preference for a solid leader who can unify the country during a pandemic and devastating social and economic crisis. Now the Israeli opposition will try to show that they are the “Israeli Biden” and that like Trump, Netanyahu is on his way out.

That message is already central to Lapid’s texts. At his party meeting, he said, “America chose a moderate leader who works for the citizens. Rather than electing a politician who is busy working for himself, it chose someone who is working for the people. That is what Israel needs, too: honest leadership that will heal Israel and heal our relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States.”

The Israeli left was battered during the Trump era. Now it's celebrating. The chairman of Meretz, Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz, sounded like he had just won the election himself. At the start of his own faction’s meeting in the Knesset Nov. 9, he said, “Biden is good for Israel and important to Israel. It may be that he is not so good for Netanyahu. It may be that Netanyahu can no longer use the White House to serve his own political needs and personal interests. But it is good for Israel in the sense that the president-elect and vice president-elect are committed to a peace process based on the two-state solution.”

Reactions across Israeli social media were more extreme. Upon learning about Biden’s victory, Knesset member Orna Barbivay tweeted, “Thank God we are rid of him. Onward in repairing this culture of falsehoods and lies, there and here.” Barbivay used a traditional Jewish blessing to mark Trump’s departure, and with it, the culture of falsehood that he disseminated. While she did not mention Netanyahu by name, it was clear that she equates him with Trump. The right responded furiously, accusing Barbivay of doing exactly what her party opposes in taking a position in American politics.

Some observers claim that Biden’s victory in the United States will combine with Netanyahu’s failed handling of the coronavirus crisis to take Netanyahu down. However, the COVID-19 situation is very different in Israel. For one thing, Netanyahu never spoke flippantly about the pandemic. On the contrary, he adopted a hard line, unlike Trump. Then there is Biden himself. Israel’s predominantly right-wing electorate worries that he will be softer regarding Iran, an argument that Netanyahu exploited during the eight years of the Barack Obama administration and it served him well. Israelis' worry about Iran and sense of alienation and estrangement toward the Palestinians will still benefit Netanyahu, who will continue to portray himself as one of the longest-serving and influential leaders in the West.

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