Anti-Trump Republicans Take Aim at Netanyahu

As Israelis head for the polls for the fourth time in two years, the political battles emerging are in surprising ways a continuation of those that just ended in the U.S.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earned a degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and speaks a mellifluous English, understands American politics intimately. While he knew how toxic President Donald Trump had become in the U.S., he was both fearful of crossing the president and anxious to use Trump’s time in office to advance Israel’s interests.

Many in Israel and the U.S. feel that Trump’s tearing up of the 2015 nuclear agree with Iran, the recognition of Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the region-changing Abraham Accords are all testimony to the wisdom of the dangerous chess game Netanyahu has played for years.

Even post-Trump, U.S. politics continue to cast a shadow over Israel’s — perhaps most noticeably by the high-profile roles which American pollsters and strategists now play. It was Netanyahu who first appreciated the full potential value of U.S. political strategists for Israeli candidates. In 1996, he relied heavily on Arthur Finkelstein, a longtime consultant to the Republican Party, to win the premiership for the first time. Since then, Netanyahu has turned to others, most recently John McLaughlin, Trump’s pollster to the bitter end.

Now, Netanyahu’s chief challenger within the Likud Party, Gideon Saar, is taking a page from that playbook. Saar, once a close Netanyahu ally, returned to politics in 2019 after a five-year hiatus to challenge Netanyahu’s control of the party. Though he was trounced in party primaries that time, Saar has now founded his own party, New Hope, with the aim of toppling the prime minister in the March 23 elections.

Saar has a tough needle to thread. Many center-right Israelis assume that the accusations of corruption for which Netanyahu was indicted might well be true, yet they believe he is being relentlessly and unfairly pursued by a left-leaning prosecution that will stop at nothing to topple him. Since Saar needs votes from that center-right electorate, he cannot make much of those charges. Nor can he ride current wave of fury against the Ultra-Orthodox over violence against police who sought to enforce Covid regulations; after the elections, he may well need them to form a coalition.

Saar is, by instinct, probably slightly to the right of Netanyahu on foreign policy (including annexation of West Bank territory), but if he runs on that, he will lose the center-left voters who supported Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, in the last three elections. Those voters, enraged with Gantz for having joined Netanyahu’s coalition government after promising he would never do so, are critical to Saar’s chances.

Saar has therefore decided to campaign on the issue of character and of Netanyahu’s supposed betrayal of Likud values. He has hired four leaders of the Lincoln Project, which relentlessly argued in the U.S. campaign that Trump had betrayed the values of Lincoln’s party. While their ultimate impact remains unclear, their vicious ads attacking Trump’s character got under his skin.

Hoping for a similar effect, Saar has engaged Steve Schmidt (adviser to President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain), Stuart Stevens (former chief strategist for Senator Mitt Romney), Reed Galen (consultant to Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney) and Rick Wilson (who once created brilliant ads for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani), hoping to convince Israelis that just as Trump brought disgrace to the party of Lincoln, so, too, has Netanyahu sullied the Likud.

All this makes the decision of Benny Begin — son of Likud founder Menachem Begin — to join with Saar’s challenge significant. The younger Begin was a longtime Knesset member and never rose beyond that. But he is widely perceived as unflinchingly honest and deeply principled.

Like Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump, Saar’s new tactic is a flirtation with danger. There is little about America’s political culture today that Israelis want to see imported, particularly the attack ads for which the Lincoln Project became known. Yet they also understand that the political know-how these U.S. experts bring might help topple Netanyahu, which so many feel is long overdue. Saar has parried Netanyahu’s Trump connection wisely; his regular insistence that he would bring warm relations with President Joe Biden and with both sides of the aisle in Congress is his way stressing that while he is adopting Bibi’s American tactics, his approach to American politics would be entirely different.

Early indications are that Netanyahu is worried. Israel Today, the newspaper funded by the recently deceased Sheldon Adelson and widely seen as a Netanyahu mouthpiece, ran an article noting that Schmidt had lambasted Trump for moving the embassy to Jerusalem, a move that Israelis across the board see as the righting of a longstanding wrong.

Meanwhile, as the Likud WhatsApp feed continues to mourn Trump’s defeat, Israel’s coming election feels increasingly like a coda to the American campaigns just ended.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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