Trump and Israel: Was Netanyahu’s victory influenced by American action?

By Francis Northwood (PO ’21)

Last Tuesday, April 9th, Benjamin Netanyahu defeated his greatest challenger yet, Benny Gantz, in a tightly contested election watched by the entire world. It was decided by fewer than 20,000 votes. While the geopolitical implications of this election are serious, Netanyahu’s election itself deserves greater analysis. Netanyahu was just indicted on three counts of corruption; how does a political figure like this win his fourth reelection campaign? The short answer: unconventional American involvement. 

American-Israeli relations have always had a strange dynamic. From the Camp David Accords to Obama’s condemnation of the settlements in the West Bank, American diplomacy in the region has always tried not to overstep into internal Israeli politics. Previously, American leaders only ventured to either praise the country, or further push for a two-state solution. Yet the opposite is true for Israeli involvement in American affairs. After the Iran deal, Netanyahu took it upon himself to ignore then-President Barack Obama’s objection and give a politically inflammatory speech to the two houses of congress. Also, AIPAC, (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) a pro-Israeli lobbying group, represents one of the largest lobbying groups in the United States. The American passivity toward taking sides in Israel has ended with the latest administration, however; Trump diverged from the norm in taking sides with his fellow firebrand leader.

The beginning of this divergence occurred when the Trump administration decided to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the city of Jerusalem (which contains a division between the Palestinian West Bank and Israel). Past administrations have consistently pushed for a two-state solution, but Trump has been mostly ambivalent about the issue saying, If the Israelis and the Palestinians want one state, that’s OK with me. If they want two-state, that’s OK with me. I’m happy if they’re happy. The decision to move the embassy falls perfectly in line with this view, revealing that at the minimum, the Trump administration is prepared to insert itself into Israeli politics.

Along with this, two weeks before the general election, Trump again thrusted himself into Israeli politics in an even more overt manner. His administration decided to recognize Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, a militarily annexed region northeast of Israel’s definite borders. This was the first international recognition of any region that Israel has so far militarily annexed. This move by Trump likely persuaded pro-settlement voters that Netanyahu was the right leader for the country.

In a final intrusion into Israel politics, a day before the election, the Trump administration designated the Iranian national guard a terrorist organization. The decision has clear political intentions. It in many ways vindicated Netanyahu’s claim on Israeli supremacy over Iran during his tenure. It also gave the Israeli Prime Minister one last pre-election boost.

Donald Trump has firmly allied himself with Benjamin Netanyahu by taking unconventional and incendiary policy positions in the Middle East. This in itself—an American leader allying himself with an Israeli leader—is not unprecedented, but such blatant political maneuvering in an ally’s election is not the norm. It is evident that Trump acted in Israel with the intention of bolstering Netanyahu’s reelection chances, yet the unprecedented nature of this political meddling has gotten muddled in the past weeks. The American government, in a grand display of irony, possibly altered the outcome of a foreign election,.

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