Positioning Helps Israel’s Netanyahu in Election and Beyond
By Yaroslav Trofimov
Wall Street Journal
April 10, 2019
TEL AVIV—As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered
speech Wednesday morning in Tel Aviv, he stood under a giant screen that
flashed images of world leaders whose embrace contributed to his re-election.
In a way, it was a reflection of the outsize role that Mr.
Netanyahu has come to play on the international stage, as the populist statesmen
and movements that he has successfully courted gain ascendancy.
Mr. Netanyahu’s ability to establish a network of bonds,
if not outright alliances—including with America and its rivals Russia and
China—helped him win Tuesday’s election, and with it a new lease on the
approach he has pursued since first coming to power in 1996: to grow Israel’s
economic, military and strategic strength while refusing to make any meaningful
concessions to the Palestinians.
a very strong politician and now he is not just a regional politician but a
global one—even though Israel is very small,” said former Mossad chief
retired Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom, a longtime supporter of negotiations to establish
a Palestinian state.
Mr. Natanyahu’s approach will be tested this year by the
Mideast peace plan that President Trump’s administration is preparing—and by Mr.
Netanyahu’s pre-election pledge to start extending Israeli
sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Washington so far has refrained from criticizing the
suggestion, which—if enacted—would carve up the land for a future
Palestinian state, rendering it nearly impossible.
Longer-term, Mr. Netanyahu’s—and, possibly,
Israel’s—global stature could depend on the swings of the global political
pendulum. In the U.S., in particular, Mr. Netanyahu’s alliance with Mr. Trump
and tussle with President Obama over the Iran nuclear deal have already sapped
the decades-old tradition of bipartisan support for Israel—and could cause an
moment, Netanyahu is riding the wave of populist governments,” said Daniel
Shapiro, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv who
served as U.S. ambassador to Israel under Mr. Obama. “But in 2021 there may be
a very different U.S. administration, with an approach that is quite opposite to
Trump’s populist politics—and it will be important for Israel to have
positive relations with an America that is resetting in that direction as that
populist wave eventually loses steam.”
For now, the ties between Israeli and American leaders are
the best they have been in more than two decades. As Mr. Netanyahu on Wednesday
morning pledged to form another right-wing government for his fifth term, the
screen above beamed footage of a recent walk with Mr. Trump. In the crowd,
supporters waved a large banner with Mr. Trump’s name and his campaign slogan,
Make America Great Again.
Mr. Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem last
year, gifted Mr. Netanyahu American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the
Golan Heights just two weeks before Tuesday’s vote. Both
moves were popular across Israel’s Jewish political spectrum.
President Vladimir Putin, too, received
Mr. Netanyahu—less than a week before the election—boosting his image
among Israel’s large Russian-speaking electorate, many of whom get their news
from the bouquet of Russian channels on Israel’s cable TV networks.
Mr. Putin, in addition to praising Mr. Netanyahu, presented
him with the remains of an Israeli sergeant who went missing in Lebanon in
1982—a high-impact gesture in a country that relies on draftee troops.
“To many Israeli voters, Netanyahu appeared as some kind
of a magician: in the same week he got a present not just from Washington but
also from Moscow,” said Yedidia Stern, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy
Institute, an Israeli think tank.
Beamed above the stage Wednesday morning were other images
that would seem unthinkable in the absence of any peace progress with the
Palestinians. There was a handshake with the sultan of Oman, who welcomed Mr.
Netanyahu on a state visit to the Gulf monarchy in October—a sign of
Israel’s new alliances in the region. And there was a hug with the president
of Chad, a Muslim nation where Mr. Netanyahu flew to establish diplomatic
relations in January.
Russia and China occupy a special place in Israel’s
strategy. In Beijing, the state exhibition to honor China’s 40th anniversary
of reform, opened with great pomp in November, showcased a photo of Mr.
Netanyahu at a stand celebrating Israeli-Chinese technology cooperation.
Israel is also a valuable source of technology for
Russia—especially after Mr. Netanyahu refused to join other Western nations in
imposing sanctions on Moscow following the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
“Israel has become an alternative to the West, in trade
and as a source of technology, and this is something very valuable for Putin,
and for the country as a whole,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert at the
Russian International Affairs Council, a state-run think tank in Moscow.
Mr. Netanyahu has heavily invested in building ties with
other right-wing movements around the world—including in the Philippines,
Brazil, Hungary and Italy.
The leaders of Brazil and Hungary announced the opening of
their nations’ missions in Jerusalem during separate pre-election visits to
Israel, providing a boost to Israel’s claim to the contested city, and to the
Israeli prime minister’s popularity.
“All these leaders, they like Netanyahu, and Netanyahu
represents their thinking,” said Zvi Mazel, a retired Israeli ambassador who
serves as a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative
The worldview of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who
came to Jerusalem in February with the leaders of the Czech Republic and
Slovakia, overlaps with Mr. Netanyahu’s in many respects, said Peter Kreko,
director of the Political Capital Institute, a think tank in Budapest.
“The kind of ethnocentric, nationalist political style,
the siege mentality, the illiberal tendencies—it is similar,” Mr. Kreko
said. “The biggest difference between Hungary and Israel is that Israel
actually has really dangerous enemies around it, and Hungary does not.”