On billboards across Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows off his prize election prop: Donald Trump. But flaunting his connections with world leaders isn’t having the desired effect for Israel’s longest-serving leader this time around.
“Everything has blown up in his face,” Gayil Talshir, political scientist at Hebrew University, told me this week, as President Trump spoke about his willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, to the horror of Netanyahu activists.
“This is a blow to Netanyahu, who benefits from the impression that he is behind America’s policy,” said Talshir. “Trump saying he’s ready to meet Rouhani undermines this, and undermines the idea that Netanyahu is the best friend of Trump.”
To the frustration of Bibi fans, Netanyahu has fallen one seat behind the centrist Blue and White party of Benny Gantz (32-31) in Channel 11’s poll on Tuesday. Though Tuesday’s election is still too close to call and many Israelis believe Netanyahu is an indispensable figure, there is a real chance that he could either lose the chance to head the next government — or get an opportunity but fail to build a coalition, as happened after the April election.
The billboards show Bibi shaking Trump’s hand. The slogan says: “Netanyahu — another league.” The message is that only Bibi has the access to world leaders needed to keep Israelis safe, and a key piece of this image is the idea that he steers Washington on policy towards Iran.
When Trump, just eight days before Israel votes, told reporters at the White House that he would meet with Rouhani, it was a blow to the namedropping narrative of Netanyahu’s Likud party. “It could happen. It could happen. No problem with me,” said Trump.
This is the same man who, in 2013, before he was president, made a video telling Israelis to vote for Netanyahu, calling him a “winner” and saying there is “nobody like him.” It is the man who timed some of his boldest pro-Israel moves, such as recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, just before the last election, when the Netanyahu campaign could squeeze maximum political capital out of them. But there have been no big gestures ahead of this election — and his overtures to Iran come at the worst possible moment for the prime minister.
The Likud campaigners are so confident that the Trump connection is a winning strategy that they are quite literally singing and shouting about it. A catchy, upbeat song just recorded by the popular singer Maor Edri highlights Bibi’s ties to Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Yalla,” he sings to the leaders, using a Hebrew phrase that basically means “get on with it,” and tells them to make their next visit to Jerusalem.
If billboards and songs aren’t enough to get voters focused on Bibi’s standing as a statesman, a dramatic security announcement may have that effect. As the White House was busy sending conciliatory signals to Iran, Netanyahu hastily arranged a press conference and announced that Israel discovered an Iranian nuclear weapons development site, and called upon Iran to destroy it.
“I call on the international community to wake up, to realize that Iran is systematically lying,” he said, after issuing a tough message to the “tyrants of Tehran.” In one short press conference he scored a double triumph. He sent a message to voters that, whatever headaches domestic politics and his corruption cases throw at him, he remains Israel’s protector against the biggest of threats, who can pressure the international community. And he gave conservative Americans a smoking gun with which to pressure Trump against meeting with the Iranians.
But Blue and White woke from its dozy campaign and recognized the potential for calling Bibi out. Gantz, the former military chief of staff, isn’t seen as charismatic or inspiring — but he is seen as solid on security. So when he said that Netanyahu made a “grave mistake” and used security information for political ends, it resonated with Israelis.
Gantz said: “When it comes to confronting a nuclear Iran, there is no coalition or opposition. We have to do everything we can to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. … I am familiar with this issue, and I have prepared the IDF to deal with the Iranian threat.
“However, this issue must not be used for political purposes, which is what Netanyahu is doing.”
Talshir said that Netanyahu isn’t just finding it harder to make capital from his Trump connections on the Iranian issue, but on other matters, too. Right-wingers fear that Netanyahu won’t have the power to stop Trump’s peace proposal, pushing them to parties right of Likud. She added that others are aware of the disapproval that some of Netanyahu’s moves have elicited from the mainstream of U.S. Jewry and fear this will harm Israel.
Some Israelis worry that Netanyahu erred in tying himself firmly to Trump. Talshir commented: “Israel used to be a bipartisan issue in the U.S. and used to be OK in terms of any leader of us, but now it starts to look a bit different.”
Gadi Wolfsfeld, professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzliya, says that this kind of analysis imagines that Israelis follow the news far more closely than they do in reality. He said of the Bibi-Trump friendship: “I certainly don’t think it’s going to backfire. People still think the relationship between Trump and Netanyahu is strong.”
Wolfsfeld also stressed that it isn’t too late for Trump to make a big pre-election gesture that helps Bibi, and noted that there are rumors that he could agree for Jonathan Pollard to emigrate to Israel. Wolfsfeld said that waiting until the eve of elections to give Bibi a boost could actually increase the impact.
“Trump could do something at the last minute to help his friend,” she said, “so let’s not rule that out.”
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.