Why you should care
Benjamin Netanyahu’s high-stakes gambit could decide the race to lead Israel.
Residents in Tel Aviv could be forgiven for thinking they had accidentally left Israel. After all, the headquarters of the reigning Likud Party has been adorned for months with faces of foreign leaders: America’s Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and India’s Narendra Modi.
But it’s no mistake. The outsiders have all been photographed shaking hands with Benjamin Netanyahu, the embattled Israeli prime minister facing his second election this year: A previous effort to oust him in April led to no party being able to form a ruling government. And the banners are just one part of a multipronged strategy to play up Bibi’s foreign policy bromides ahead of the final vote on Sept. 17. “Netanyahu: In a league of his own,” the posters read.
“This is a reminder, especially in Tel Aviv,” says Eli Hazan, foreign affairs director for the Likud Party. “Going abroad is our way of showing how valuable Netanyahu is. Look at what we can promote with his ability.”
Candidates across democracies usually spend the days before a major election furiously touring constituencies and holding rallies. But Netanyahu is unconventionally focusing on those outside Israel instead. The longest-serving leader of Israel, in office since 2009, Netanyahu’s been quick to showcase how close he is to Trump at every turn, even barring, at Trump’s request, two American congresswomen from entering the country.
In early September, Netanyahu landed in London for a photo op with Boris Johnson, the United Kingdom’s freshly minted prime minister. He is visiting Putin in Russia this week and would have visited Modi in India on Monday, if not for a last-minute change of plans due to his cramped travel schedule. Netanyahu instead telephoned Modi to ensure that the Indian prime minister didn’t take his changed travel plans as a slight.
These visits capture the essence of Netanyahu’s approach.
KC Johnson, Brooklyn College
For Israel’s leader, the endorsement of world leaders helps underscore his global clout in contrast with the international inexperience of Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, leaders of the opposition Blue and White Party.
“It is indeed quite rare,” says KC Johnson, a Brooklyn College history professor and former Tel Aviv University instructor who studies U.S.-Middle Eastern relations. And yet “these visits capture the essence of Netanyahu’s approach. He’s a PM whose focus is almost entirely on foreign policy and strategic matters, and he basically cares — one way or the other — about domestic issues,” Johnson says.
The foreign policy focus just days before Election Day may serve multiple purposes, say experts.
First, it reminds Israeli voters about Netanyahu’s ability to command the world stage. His critics argue that he has poisoned the well with many European leaders with controversial policies regarding the Palestinian territories. Still, there is no denying that under his leadership, Israel — a country that has historically found itself isolated at international platforms over human rights concerns — has become a global player (particularly with the type of strong-arm leaders who see a bit of themselves in Netanyahu’s brashness). Through first-of-its-kind visits to Africa and Latin America, he has won Israel new friends. At the same time, he has strengthened ties with major countries ranging from India to China to Russia.
For his domestic audience, Netanyahu has cultivated an image of being the best leader for Israelis to place their trust in on security issues, not just by projecting strength but also with ploys like his famous “Bibi-sitter” ad campaign. “If foreign policy/security becomes the lens through which Israeli voters cast their ballots, he has a much better chance of winning,” Johnson says.
That’s especially true considering Netanyahu is facing a precarious situation unlike any faced before by an Israeli PM: He’s seeking reelection with a near-certain corruption indictment hanging over his head. He’s also facing rare political isolation at home, with traditional allies like the hawkish former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman openly campaigning against him. Some analysts have also suggested that Netanyahu’s Russia visit — his second in five months — is aimed at wooing the Russian-origin vote in Israel, which is home to more than 1 million migrants from the former Soviet Union. He’s directly up against the Moldovan-born Lieberman in seeking that vote.
Finally, through these visits, Netanyahu is forcing the Israeli press corps to divert its attention. “The meeting with Boris Johnson accomplished nothing but got a lot of press. If he meets Putin, that will be a chance to highlight his efforts to strike Iranian forces in Syria. And because these are visits to other heads of state, the press must cover them as news,” says Johnson, calling it a foreign policy version of the Rose Garden strategy that incumbent American presidents have used in the past to command the news cycle. “Any time the public focuses on foreign policy, they’re not exploring the corruption allegations.”
Could it backfire? Certainly. Israeli voters may tire of the near-constant scandal the Netanyahu administration has been mired in since the Israeli police began investigating him in December 2016. He has tried to adopt a Trumpian tactic of deny-and-condemn, calling the investigations a “witch hunt,” while his allies say they believe authorities are levying a “selective enforcement” against him. But polls have had Netanyahu’s Likud Party in a dead heat with the opposition, without a single September result showing him with more than a single-seat advantage (Likud currently holds 38 seats to Blue and White’s 35). If a sojourn away spoils the support he still has, Netanyahu could be sitting outside of power for the first time in a decade.
There’s every chance, some analysts have warned, that Netanyahu’s bonhomie with Putin could end up hurting him with Russian-speaking voters. After all, Putin — a former KGB agent — is a reminder of authoritarian Soviet times for many who fled the former communist nation.
What’s more, there is little evidence that the world leaders Netanyahu is stealing photos with would behave any differently with Israel were it led by his rivals. Trump, Johnson says, might have just as likely moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem if Netanyahu was out and Gantz were in office.
Hazan denies heading abroad will backfire. “Most of our campaign has been in social media,” he says. “Netanyahu needs to do only one thing: Take a video. We don’t need more than that.”
And so Netanyahu is continuing his strategy of holding tight to foreign allies even as his grip domestically weakens. If he can eke out one more win, perhaps he will set another precedent for a prime minister: thanking not just Israeli voters but also Putin, Trump and Modi for putting their faith in him.