When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives in Israel this week, it won’t be interpreted as just another routine stop as America’s chief diplomat seeks to reaffirm ties with an ally or to prepare the ground for the expected unveiling of U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan sometime later in the year. Instead, Israelis view Pompeo’s visit as the latest instance of America trying to intervene in their elections. With less than three weeks to go before Israelis head to the polls to elect a new Knesset, Pompeo’s presence is seen as a not-so-subtle hint to the voters of the Trump administration’s firm embrace of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Though supporters of Netanyahu’s rivals aren’t happy about it, most Israelis are likely to shrug at the Americans’ effort to give the prime minister a boost as he tries to win his fourth consecutive term and fifth overall as prime minister. The reason for their indifference is no secret. Israelis are quite used to American presidents trying to tell them how to vote. The only thing that’s different about this example is that for the first time, the White House is not trying to elect a left-wing government as they have several times before.
Trump is popular in Israel, for good reason. He’s been arguably the most pro-Israel American president to date.
Since November 2016, Americans have been fuming about Russia’s attempt to intervene in our presidential elections. But little attention has been given to the question of whether the United States has tried to do the same thing in other countries.
There is a long history of U.S. interventions in foreign elections, especially during the Cold War. But the most frequent object of such attention in the last generation has been Israel. American presidents have repeatedly sought to secure a government in Jerusalem that was more amenable to Washington’s ideas about the peace process.
In 1992, the first President George Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, worked hard to undermine the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir because of U.S. resentment of the Israeli’s refusal to halt settlement-building and lack of enthusiasm for negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The notion that Shamir had mishandled the relationship with the Americans helped to ensure his defeat.
Four years later, U.S. efforts to impact the outcome of the 1996 election were far more blatant. President Bill Clinton had committed his own prestige to the success of the Oslo Accords and was determined to do everything he could to prevent Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu from defeating Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who had succeeded Yitzhak Rabin after his tragic assassination. Clinton has admitted that he had pulled out the stops to boost Peres’s chances, including staging a summit with him prior to the election and then hosting him at the White House.
Netanyahu won anyway and, as Clinton subsequently noted, made it clear to the president that he knew that the United States had tried to prevent his victory. But that didn’t stop Clinton from trying again in 1999. Clinton did little to hide his happiness when Israelis elected Ehud Barak. Only a year later, Barak and Clinton gambled Israel’s security when they offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat an independent state at Camp David. In the president’s view, he lost a chance at the Nobel Peace Prize because Arafat preferred terrorism to peace.
Relations between President George W. Bush and Barak’s successors—Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert—were less contentious as both ultimately agreed upon policies that were in line with America’s hopes for a renewed effort in which Israel would trade land for Palestinian promises of peace.
But after those efforts failed, the election of Barack Obama changed the dynamic of the alliance. More than any previous president, Obama was convinced that Israel had to be “saved from itself,” and bludgeoned into repeating the blunders of Oslo and the withdrawal from Gaza.
Obama openly favored Tzipi Livni and the Kadima Party against Netanyahu and Likud in the 2009 election held only weeks after his inauguration. When Netanyahu and his allies won a majority anyway, Obama openly schemed to topple him. When Netanyahu ran for re-election in 2013 and 2015, Obama made no effort to hide his desire that Israelis reject him or his dismay when the voters decided otherwise.
Obama’s efforts were counterproductive because Israelis didn’t trust him due his obvious contempt for their valid security concerns and his appeasement of Iran. Israeli elections have always been decided by what the voters thought was in the national interest rather than the whims of the Americans. But Netanyahu’s opponents have good reason to worry that Trump’s support for the prime minister could help his cause far more than Obama’s maneuvers hurt it.
Trump is popular in Israel and for good reason. He’s been arguably the most pro-Israel American president to date; even Netanyahu’s chief opponents are careful to express gratitude to him for his stands on Jerusalem and Iran. The close relationship that Netanyahu has forged with Trump makes the majority of American Jews cringe. But it’s one of the prime minister’s chief assets.
The Pompeo visit and the president’s decision to hold back on announcing his peace plan are both helpful to Netanyahu. Should Trump go even further and make a timely expression of support for Israeli annexation of the heights, it will be all that much better for Netanyahu.
The only downside to this for Netanyahu is what Trump will expect in return. But that’s a problem that the prime minister will gladly worry about after he is re-elected.
After benefiting so many times in the past from American endorsements, the Israeli left is in no position to complain about anything Trump does to help Netanyahu. But no matter who is elected on April 9, you can be sure of two end results: that the Israelis will do what they think is in their best interests, and that their American allies won’t be deterred from again trying to influence the decision the next time round.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.