U.S.-Israel political parallels (and perils)

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A campaign poster for the 2019 Israeli election — one of four in just two years — showed a smiling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands. But not with a coalition partner, or even reaching out to a rival in a magnanimous gesture. Rather, the man looking equally enthused to grip and grin was then-President Donald Trump, looking like a running mate in a U.S.-style campaign.

In metaphorical ways, the president and prime minister were running mates. More broadly, Netanyahu's closer association with Republicans was a sharp departure from the traditionally bipartisan foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

That condition, which is good for both countries, may return — if the inchoate coalition formed to oust Netanyahu can hang together and pass an impending confidence vote in the Knesset.

That's not a sure thing, said David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. Most coalition governments, Makovsky said, are ideologically in between the 30-yard lines. This one, an eight-party political octopus spanning the far right to far left — with the support of an Arab Islamist party — "is from end zone to end zone," which may allow Netanyahu to "pick off a backbencher" to scuttle the one-vote majority.

Speaking from Israel around 1 a.m. on Thursday, just an hour past Wednesday's midnight deadline to form a government, Makovsky reflected on the parallels between both nations' recent elections and how American-Israeli relations affected, and may be affected by, the outcomes.

Makovsky, who served for two years of the Obama administration as a senior adviser to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said that Netanyahu and Trump "both rely on populist themes for their support, and both have kind of stoked the idea of elite opinion against them as a way to rally their base" — especially as Netanyahu faces legal peril from charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust (which he denies).

The two leaders are "not identical, but there have been some troubling similarities recently. And in each case, there was a belief that four more years could politicize institutions that historically have prided themselves on their independence, their vitality, their resilience," Makovsky said.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the George W. Bush administration and to Egypt during the Clinton administration, sees similarities, too. Now a Princeton professor of Middle East policy studies, Kurtzer said that "since 2009 one can measure an increasing degree in which Prime Minister Netanyahu not only distanced himself from Democrats [but] adopted Republicans as their [coalition's] natural allies for his political movement." When Trump won the presidency, Kurtzer continued, Netanyahu "quite specifically adopted Trump's views and his behaviors to the point where much of the language became the same."

That included the use of Trump verbiage such as "witch hunt" to characterize the corruption charges. Now, Kurtzer added, the parallels "are extraordinarily true, not only in terms of language and behavior but also the expectation of how Netanyahu will likely behave should he go into the opposition. It will be something stolen from him, it will be an illegal act, an act of treason on the part of his political opponents, all language that he has been playing with in trying to forestall this coalition. So there is an extraordinary mirror imaging of the two leaders feeding off each other."

The result is that "the real essence of the relationship has basically changed from diplomacy to politics," Kurtzer said. "This is no longer a diplomatic relationship; this is a political relationship in which Israel has become an embedded factor in the American political scene. The Republican Party, I think some years ago, made a conscious choice that it was going to become the Israel party and take away that title which had long been ascribed to Democrats.

"And the Republicans assume this mantle or this title at a time when there was some ferment within the Democratic Party, particularly among a growing number of political figures and progressives. So now, Israel is no longer a consensus political issue in which we can conduct diplomacy that involves both elements of accord as well as discord." Israel, Kurtzer concluded, is "very much a political football now."

The new quarterbacks — President Joe Biden and Naftali Bennett, slated to be Israel's next prime minister — will need to return the relationship to more of a diplomatic dynamic, befitting and benefiting both countries.

"Israel has prided itself historically on bipartisan support; it's been a source of strength," Makovsky said. "Americans of all stripes have valued that alliance. … In the U.S. context it hurt that sense of bipartisan support for Israel, that Netanyahu had become partisan."

The ties can be tightened, Makovsky continued, under Biden, "someone who has about half a century of friendship with Israel."

The friendship couldn't come at a better time. While the Abraham Accords, a major Trump administration accomplishment, made breakthroughs with four Mideast and North African nations, external, existential threats still exist from nations like Iran and nonstate terror groups like Hezbollah, as well as the internal threat from Hamas.

Biden needs to continue to extend a hand to more moderate Palestinian factions, too, in order to inch, however incrementally, the moribund peace process forward.

But expectations should be kept in check.

"I think there's no pathway even after the new coalition to anything resembling a final-status accord; that in itself would break apart that coalition," Kurtzer said. "But I think there will be an interest in not only managing the situation on the ground but improving the situation on the ground. To the extent that those improvements are embedded in what the Palestinians can believe is a longer-term prospect of a settlement, then things can get a little bit better.

"But if they're embedded in the idea that the Palestinians end up believing that this is a way of buying them off so there is no pathway to a final settlement, then it won't accomplish very much. Bennett's rhetoric is going to be critically important."

So will Biden's. To the Palestinians, to be sure, but also to Israelis, Americans and the world, as an enduring, durable ally enters a new era.

At some point Biden and Bennett will meet, and there will be a similar image of American and Israeli leaders shaking hands. The photo likely won't, and shouldn't, appear on a campaign billboard, but rather on front pages, reflecting a return to a more diplomatic relationship between two vital democracies.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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