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Trump-Bibi bromance still on honeymoon

Trump's BFF is victorious in Israel, but how will that affect the 'Deal of the Century'?

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Mr Netanyahu's political survival depends on the support of right-wing and religious parties who reject the idea of giving up the West Bank and who would probably sabotage any attempt by Mr Trump to push through his Mid-East peace deal.

A STRING of corruption scandals and criminal charges has overshadowed his term in office, with the controversial national leader blaming "fake news" being spread" by the Mainstream Media (MSM), the so-called Deep State, a biased judicial system and law-enforcement system for all his political and legal troubles.

So when he was finally facing a serious challenge from the candidate nominated by the opposing party, running against him in what many saw as a historic election and predicted that could end his political career, the embattled leader mobilised his supporters - those forgotten men and women who do not reside in the large metropolitan centres and who subscribe to more nationalist and traditional values - and called on them to vote for him and deliver a knockout to the arrogant "elites".

And then came Election Night. Beating all political odds and in variance with many of the opinion polls that had forecast his defeat, the besieged national leader ended up being re-elected by a wide margin for another term in office, humiliating all his political adversaries in the MSM and the Deep State.

Which is exactly what US President Donald Trump is hoping will be written about him after the 2020 presidential election night, when all the politicos and pundits who had predicted a big loss to the current White House occupant will be forced to eat their hats as he rides into a YUGE electoral victory.

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But for now, Mr Trump can only celebrate the electoral triumph of another divisive and besieged national leader, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, who also happens to be the Donald's BFF, and who on late Tuesday night emerged as the big winner from a re-election campaign that almost everyone had expected would bring about his political downfall.

Instead, Mr Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud Party, has been re-elected for the fifth time as leader of the Jewish State. That has stunned his critics in the political world and the media - in Israel as well as in the United States - who had put their money on his rival, Israel's former military chief-of-staff and retired general Benjamin ("Benny") Gantz, and his centre-left Kachol Lavan (or Blue and White Party), that according to polls, seemed to have had a better than a 50 per cent chance of beating Bibi and the Likud in the parliamentary election.

Instead, the Likud has increased the number of its seats in the 120-member Knesset from 30 to 35 and, even more significant, with the support of other right-wing and religious parties, the Likud's natural political allies - and despite the announcement by Israel's Attorney-General that he was planning to indict PM Netanyahu on corruption charges after a two-year investigation - Bibi (or King Bibi as his fans call him) will be able to form a coalition government that will enjoy the backing of 65 Knesset members.

Tuesday's celebration of the victory of the Likud and its potential coalition partners has been a clear manifestation of the growing electoral power of the political right in Israel. They draw much of their support from working-class Jews without college degrees, many of whom are descendants of immigrants from Arab countries (Mizrahim) who resent the continuing political and cultural dominance by secular and liberal Jews whose families had immigrated from Europe (Ashkenazim) and who constitute a majority in the vibrant commercial centre of Tel Aviv, referred to occasionally by members of the political right as the State of Tel Aviv.

That political-demographic picture mirrors America's electoral map where - like Mr Netanyahu in Israel - Mr Trump relies on the support of "tribalist" white voters with no college education who reside in rural areas and small towns, with one major difference: Younger Israelis, unlike their American counterparts, gravitate to the political right, and since ultra-Orthodox Jews (who support the religious parties) have a very high birth rate, it guarantees that the power bloc of right-wing and religious parties will only continue to grow in the coming years.

The leaders of the Blue and White Party - Mr Gantz and two others, including another former military chief - had hoped that they would be able to win enough votes among Israelis who are tired of the scandals that have hung over Mr Netanyahu and his long stay in power, and who would therefore gravitate to the new centrist political party and the retired generals who lead it.

But while the new party did win 35 seats in parliament, it could only count on the support of a small number of left-wing and Arab parties that - together with the Blue and White Party - would have only 55 seats, not quite enough to form a coalition that could oust a popular PM from power.

In addition to Mr Netanyahu's success in managing the Israeli economy that was not impacted by the 2008 financial crisis and which has enjoyed the impressive growth of its high-tech sector, one of his major sources of popularity and political strength has been his image as Mr Security.

A former member of an elite military commando unit, Mr Netanyahu, 69, has been promoting a hawkish national security agenda in dealing with the threats of a nuclear Iran and Arab terrorism. He has resisted international pressure to give up Israeli military control over the occupied and Arab-populated West Bank, and has managed effectively Israel's relationship with its leading global diplomatic and military ally, the United States.

Indeed, Mr Netanyahu was raised in the US, speaks fluent English, received his MBA from MIT, served as Israel's ambassador to Washington, and developed close ties with leading American politicians and journalists, especially in the conservative Republican camp, which explains why he is now the second most popular politician among Republican voters. Mr Trump, of course, tops the list.

So when Mr Trump, Mr Netanyahu's old buddy from Manhattan, relocated to the White House, and with his son-in-law Jared Kushner (a personal friend of Bibi) serving as an adviser to the president, one could smell the scent of love in the air as far as US-Israel relations go, producing a personal and political chemistry between the two nationalist and populist leaders and creating the conditions for stronger diplomatic and military ties between Washington and Jerusalem.

Revoking the nuclear deal with Iran; recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital and relocating the American embassy there from Tel Aviv; and siding with Israel at the United Nations - Mr Trump is now more popular among Israelis than he is in the US, and his friendship with Mr Netanyahu has turned out to be a major political asset during the recent Israeli parliamentary election.

While Mr Trump refrained from actively campaigning for his BFF in Jerusalem, his decision on the eve of the Knesset election to recognise Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, an area it had captured during the 1967 Middle East War, amounted to a political gesture to Bibi that didn't go unnoticed by Israeli voters who eventually re-elected him for another four years.

But from the perspective of the Trump administration, which is preparing to introduce its plan for peace in the Middle East, it may be too early to conclude that the outcome of the Israeli election is indeed cause for big celebrations in Washington.

Mr Trump - who has made it clear he intends to help reach a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and calling it the "Deal of the Century" - has said he expects that in return for recognising the Jewish State and guaranteeing its security, the Israelis would make major concessions to the Palestinians, perhaps by giving up control of parts of the West Bank and by withdrawing some of the Jewish settlements in those areas.

The problem is that Mr Netanyahu's political survival depends on the support of right-wing and religious parties who reject the idea of giving up the West Bank (which they regard as part of the historical Jewish homeland) and who would probably sabotage any attempt by the Donald's Israeli pal to accept the terms of the Deal of the Century.

That could force the PM to consider the idea of forming a grand coalition with Mr Gantz and his political party, or declare a new election, which could be a major obstacle to Mr Trump's diplomatic ambitions just when he is preparing his re-election campaign.