TEL AVIV, Israel – In three straight elections, Israeli politics had an oversized guest star: Donald Trump.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his close relationship with Trump, which was widespread in Israel, the centerpiece of his campaigns. His Likud party hung a 15-story poster on Tel Aviv’s busiest highway, on which the two leaders grinned and shook hands.
Trump, who appeared to be enjoying his political clout in the country, was widely viewed as an attempt to swing the polls in Netanyahu’s favor. Shortly before the March 2019 elections, Trump invited Netanyahu to the White House and guaranteed him days of media coverage.
With tired Israeli voters voting for the fourth time in two years on Tuesday, Netanyahu can no longer count on a helping hand from the White House.
President Joe Biden is staying out of the Israeli election after leaving Netanyahu for weeks to even get a call. The silence lasted so long that White House press secretary Jen Psaki made it clear that it was not a “deliberate rejection” of Netanyahu.
Polls show that Netanyahu’s party will almost certainly win the most votes and seats in Tuesday’s election. However, it is not clear whether he can form a majority coalition in parliament with his right-wing allies. He is also expected to win fewer seats than when he voted last year.
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Netanyahu’s supporters say Trump’s absence does not affect their chances. They point to Netanyahu’s success in launching the world’s leading vaccine rollout in Israel and his role in normalizing relations with several Arab states as reason enough for him to win re-election.
“We will or will not get support from American presidents, but I don’t think that is the biggest factor in the decision-making process of the Israeli public,” said Nir Barkat, a member of the Netanyahu party. “You will elect the best Israeli prime minister regardless of who is President of the United States.”
The shift in US administrations offers Netanyahu’s political rivals a new line of attack. Netanyahu’s close relationship with Trump was a political calling card in the last election. His rocky ties with Democrats are a millstone that his opponents want to hang around his neck in this case.
“We have very unhappy Democrats with long memories,” said Yair Lapid, Israel’s centrist opposition leader, adding that Netanyahu “didn’t even connect Israel to the Republicans, but to a certain stream within the Republican Party.”
While Trump has managed to have the Republican Party almost an iron grip, a faction has broken free from Netanyahu’s Likud and is challenging him at the ballot box this year.
The New Hope Party’s indictment against Netanyahu is similar to the Never Trump Republicans’ complaints against Trump – that he has turned his party into a personality cult and sunk into corruption.
Netanyahu was charged with fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes on three separate counts last year. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends and doing a favor to powerful media moguls in order to get cheap coverage of him and his family. He denies the allegations and the process continues.
Sharren Haskel was a Member of Parliament for Likud but joined the breakaway New Hope Party last year. New Hope shares many of Likud’s right-wing positions but says it features “statecraft” instead of Netanyahu’s populism.
“The best days of Netanyahu are behind him and the best days of Israel are ahead of him,” said Haskel. “In the past year we have seen red lines being crossed. We are in a health and economic crisis and the decision-making was not professional but political. Those red lines signaled to me and more members of Likud that a change of leadership is required. “
Due to Israel’s complex parliamentary system, Netanyahu is likely to be replaced as prime minister only if an unwieldy coalition of left, center and right parties can agree to bury their differences and unite against him in a coalition government.
Regardless of the composition of the next Israeli government, the Biden government has indicated that it has limited ambitions to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“Realistically speaking, it is difficult to see any short-term prospects for further development,” said Antony Blinken during his Senate confirmation hearing as State Secretary.
There is also broad consensus among Israeli political parties against one of Biden’s top political priorities in the Middle East: the return to the Iranian nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated and the Trump administration abandoned.
Israeli leaders across the political spectrum believe that the deal is not tough enough for Iran. Their main disagreement is how best to get the White House to stay out of the deal, or at least to strengthen it.
On the way to election day, Netanyahu may stop promoting his ties with the US president. But he argues that he is the only candidate with the experience of steering Israel through the dangerous skies of the Middle East.
“I know how to fly this plane,” he said. “The other boys don’t have a license.”