As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a re-election battle next week, he is missing an ally he could rely on over the previous three votes in the past two years: Donald Trump.
The former president’s conservative base was fiercely pro-Israeli and Trump has filled the wish list for Sokol’s Netanyahu.
Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, blessed settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, and issued American incentives to Arab countries to normalize ties with the Jewish state.
Netanyahu cited his closeness to Trump to bolster his candidacy, printing the former president’s face on his posters during past campaigns.
The prime minister “actually told his followers: You see, whenever I want, I knock on the door of the White House and the White House opens the door,” Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at the Open University of Israel, told AFP.
President Joe Biden represents a dramatically different political reality for Netanyahu, who wants to extend his record 12 consecutive years in power on March 23.
In this vote, “the presence of the U.S. administration is minimal,” Hermann said.
– ‘No alternative’? –
Netanyahu and Biden have reaffirmed their decades-long friendship, but have sharp differences in policies, especially regarding Iran.
Biden demanded the return of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, an agreement that Netanyahu loathed and that Trump canceled.
The Democratic president is expected to renew American criticism of the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“There is no love for Netanyahu in this administration and among democratic elites,” said Shibley Telhami, a U.S. policy expert on the Middle East at the University of Maryland.
“The problem for them right now is that the practical alternatives to it are almost as bad.”
Several of Netanyahu’s allies joined rival right-wing parties.
Polls suggest none of these new factions are likely to defeat Netanyahu’s Likud, but they have shifted Israeli policy further to the right.
Biden’s ideology can be closely aligned with the Israeli centrist party Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, which is predicted to take second place behind Likud.
Veteran, U.S. Democratic political adviser Mark Mellman, who advises the challenger, said Lapid shares Biden’s values and considers the president a friend.
“He is in favor of a two-state solution. There are parties in Israel that oppose the two-state solution,” Mellman said.
Still, “there is no such thing [Biden] has done this suggests that he wants to play his favorite here at all. “
David Makovsky, a senior associate at the pro-Israel Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, said that even if Biden wanted to support Netanyahu’s rival, any alternative coalition could face collapse under ideological divisions.
“They agree they want to get rid of Netanyahu. It spends them the first month, but what do they agree on after that?” said Makovsky.
Moreover, he told AFP, the Biden administration’s attention is focused elsewhere.
“The administration has hit a lot with Covid, Covid, Covid, 500,000 Americans killed, all of Covid’s economic implications, and it’s just squeezing a lot of trouble,” he said.
– ‘Not focused on the Middle East’ –
Biden gave a signal that he would not withdraw some of Trump’s moves that were popular in Israel.
He has no plans to return the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, and his administration supports Trump-mediated agreements by which Israel has normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Washington’s criticism of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into possible Israeli war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza is also welcome across the Israeli political spectrum.
“The United States will work with whoever shows up,” Dan Shapiro, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, told AFP.
“But the bigger picture is that President Biden’s top priorities at the moment are mostly not focused on the Middle East.”
Instead of striving for a comprehensive peace agreement, Biden will focus on improving the daily lives of Palestinians by restoring aid and rebuilding diplomatic missions, which Trump has suspended, Shapiro predicted.
In the country, Biden is facing limited calls from progressives to stand up more strongly for the Palestinian cause.
Last week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent and four Democratic senators, asked Secretary of State Tony Blinken to put pressure on Israel to do more to help Palestinians get coronavirus vaccines.
Israel is a world leader in vaccination against Covid per capita, but has offered only a limited amount of doses to Palestinians, who have not yet launched major inoculations in the occupied West Bank or in the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
© 2021 AFP