Oct 28, 2020 - World

U.S. election result will shake up Israeli politics

Illustration of binoculars resting on the Israel flag, reflecting the U.S. flag in the lenses

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's biggest domestic political asset is on the ballot on Nov. 3 — his relationship with President Trump.

Why it matters: The outcome of America's election could help determine whether Israel soon faces yet another election of its own.

In the coming weeks, Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz — his political rival turned coalition partner — will decide whether to attempt to salvage their dysfunctional coalition or opt for early elections.

  • Netanyahu is on shaky political footing. His approval ratings have plummeted amid a second coronavirus wave, and he could find himself in court three days a week as of January to defend himself against corruption charges.
  • If Trump wins, Netanyahu will likely use his close relationship with Trump to recover domestically. He may try to cash in through early elections, telling voters he can accomplish many things if he gets another four years of working with Trump.
  • If Trump loses, it will be a big blow at a time when he can hardly afford it. Netanyahu has a long-standing, friendly personal relationship with Joe Biden, but nothing like the ideological and political alignment he has with Trump.

The state of play: The government needs to pass a budget by December to survive, but Gantz is insisting that it also pass the 2021 budget by then, holding out the threat of an early election at a time when the polls look rough for Netanyahu.

  • Passing a 2021 budget would make it legally impossible for Netanyahu to renege on their power-sharing deal.
  • It calls for Gantz to become prime minister on Nov. 17, 2021, so he'd be guaranteed to take office, at least for a short period.

Behind the scenes: Gantz's aides say the U.S. election results will factor into their decision-making, and that they believe the same is true for Netanyahu. Netanyahu's aides deny that the results will influence his political calculus.

What to watch: Netanyahu is treading carefully in the lead up to the election.

  • When Trump tried to obtain an endorsement last Friday during a call with Netanyahu and the leaders of Sudan — asking if “Sleepy Joe” could have sealed such a diplomatic deal — Netanyahu said he'd be happy to work for peace with any American partner.
  • The following day, Netanyahu was asked in a press conference whether he was concerned about U.S. policy shifts if Biden wins. He said he hoped any future U.S. administration would continue to push for normalization between Israel and the Arab world.

Between the lines: The perception that Netanyahu's political rivals have closer ties to the U.S. president than him would be particularly damaging domestically should Biden win.

  • On foreign policy, Netanyahu's influence on the White House would dramatically diminish, and tensions would be likely due to major policy differences on issues ranging from Iran to relations with the Palestinians.
  • Nevertheless, Netanyahu managed to use tensions with Barack Obama over issues like Iran to rally his conservative base. If Biden wins, Netanyahu could argue in his next election campaign that he "protected" Israel from Obama, and would now "protect" it from Biden.
  • That would be a big shift from the last three campaigns, which Netanyahu centered around his close relationship with Trump.

The bottom line: While Netanyahu has been careful not to show it, he'll be hoping Trump prevails on Nov. 3.

Illustration of binoculars resting on the Palestine flag, reflecting the U.S. flag in the lenses
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Palestinian view

The stakes may be even higher for Palestinian leaders.

  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut off all contacts with the Trump administration three years ago after Trump announced the U.S. would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem.
  • Ties with the U.S. will quickly be restored if Biden enters the White House.

On the ground: Abd Elraouf Arnaout, political correspondent of Al-Ayyam newspaper, says Palestinian officials don't know exactly what to expect from Biden, but think anything would be better than four more years of Trump:

  • Arnaout reports from Ramallah that Palestinian officials are following the race closely, and President Mahmoud Abbas is briefed on it continuously.
  • Abbas has turned down many proposals to meet or speak with Trump or other senior U.S. officials, he reports. All contacts have come through third parties — mainly regional and world leaders.
  • But Abbas and his aides have maintained contacts with Democratic members of Congress, and been encouraged by their support for the two-state solution and opposition to Israeli annexations.

The bottom line: "Palestinian leaders hope for a totally different reality and policy under Biden," Arnaout says.

Go deeper