Global 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 his victory 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.

 “Netanyahu is 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 anti-Israeli backlash.

 “At the 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 think tank.

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.”