Monday, October 26, 2020

JERUSALEM — Israelis have a lot on their plate these days: instability on its borders with Lebanon and Syria, the threat from Iran, the prospect of more normalization deals with once-hostile Arab states, domestic political scandals and a nasty surge in COVID-19 cases.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow Israelis may be excused for obsessively refreshing their American political news feeds.

In a country where President Trump is broadly popular, Mr. Netanyahu may be among the foreign leaders with the most at stake — and the most to lose — in U.S. elections next week.

Mr. Trump’s image in Israel got another boost Friday when Sudan became the third Arab country in two months to announce plans to move to normalize relations with Israel, the latest fruit of U.S. diplomacy aimed at ending Israel’s isolation in the region and building up a coalition to confront strategic foe Iran.

By moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, renouncing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and radically scaling back U.S. opposition to Israeli settlements in Palestinian-claimed land, the Trump administration has forged a strong bond with Mr. Netanyahu, who had an often prickly relationship with President Obama.

Mr. Trump is “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House,” the prime minister said at the White House ceremony last month sealing the deal for normalization of ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Mr. Trump, he said, holds “the key to the hearts of the people of Israel because of all the great things you’ve done for the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”

Key supporters of Mr. Netanyahu, such as U.S. businessman Sheldon Adelson, have also backed Mr. Trump and the Republican Party in the U.S., while Obama administration veterans such as Ben Rhodes often criticize the Israeli leader. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party also has long-standing links to American Christian evangelical groups that are among the most loyal blocs of Mr. Trump’s political base.

A poll by i24 News released in mid-October found that 63% of Israelis think Mr. Trump would be better for Israel than Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden in the next four years. Just 18% said the former vice president would be better for the country’s interests.

About half of those polled said they were following the U.S. political debate, and a similar number thought Mr. Netanyahu’s government would be harmed if Mr. Trump lost the election.

One Israeli commentator predicted that Mr. Netanyahu will “have to go through detox” if Mr. Trump loses the election. The commentator noted that Mr. Netanyahu would lose major influence in Washington and that many people in Mr. Biden’s foreign policy orbit are hostile toward the prime minister.

Still, with the U.S. as Israel’s largest military supplier and longtime ally, the coalition government Mr. Netanyahu heads along with Defense Minister Benny Gantz has kept a lower profile on the upcoming election. Mr. Biden, despite supporting the Iran deal and questioning Israel’s settlement policies, can point to a long history of supporting the Jewish state, and polls suggest the Democrat will win a strong majority of the U.S. Jewish vote on Nov. 3.

The Israeli caution was on display Friday as Mr. Trump appeared to try to coax a backdoor endorsement from Mr. Netanyahu over his rival in a conference call to mark the Sudan breakthrough.

Addressing Mr. Netanyahu by his famous nickname, Mr. Trump at one point remarked, “Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi? Sleepy Joe? … I don’t think so.”

Mr. Netanyahu parried with, “Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America. And we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”

More pressing issues

For many Israelis, the vote in the U.S. takes a back seat to problems much closer to home. Far more pressing in the public debate are the COVID-19 resurgence, Mr. Netanyahu’s continuing personal trials on corruption charges and regional security problems.

Mr. Trump and his aides have also been careful to keep lines open to Mr. Gantz, head of the rival Blue and White Party, who was in Washington last week for talks with Defense Secretary Mike Esper.

Mr. Gantz fought Mr. Netanyahu to a draw in three straight national elections and is supposed to take over as prime minister late next year as part of the deal that allowed Israel’s governing coalition to finally come together in May. Mr. Netanyahu featured his close relationship with Mr. Trump prominently in his campaign ads.

The White House waited for Israel to have two elections before presenting its peace plan on the eve of the third and invited both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz to Washington for the announcement.

The silence from Mr. Netanyahu’s camp about the U.S. vote indicates a cautious approach.

Some think the fallout from a loss by Mr. Trump has been overstated. Danny Danon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a Likud supporter, said he believed both candidates would be good for Israel.

But Herb Keinon, senior contributing editor of The Jerusalem Post, pointed out that Mr. Netanyahu has not met recently with Mr. Biden, a rarity for an Israeli leader before a U.S. election.

“There was no real expectation that he would do anything to antagonize the president. And Netanyahu meeting with Biden, or even publicly reaching out to him with a phone call, during a trip to Washington to sign the peace accords brokered by the Trump administration would have surely done just that.”

But comments by Palestinian leaders give a sense of the stakes for Israel in the U.S. presidential election. They say Mr. Trump’s regional diplomacy has isolated them and a White House peace plan seems dead in the water.

“If we are going to live another four years with President Trump, God help us,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said last week.

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