Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t worried about the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections — and he’s vowing to keep his mouth shut to avoid tipping the race one way or the other.
Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the Israeli leader has been saying in closed door meetings lately, the American public is supportive of Israel and that won’t change regardless of who occupies the White House in the next four years.
The data-driven Netanyahu, who has packed his schedule this summer with lengthy briefing meetings with Israeli media outlets and public opinion leaders, pulled out polling results to prove the point that Americans’ sympathy to Israel is at an all time high, while support for Palestinians remains extremely low. For Netanyahu, according to several sources who attended two of these briefings, the data backs his key assumptions regarding Israeli - American relations: that support for Israel is bipartisan and goes all the way from the top to the grassroots, and that his own dabbling in partisan politics during the Iran nuclear deal debate did not harm Israel’s standing in America.
In order to make sure this remains the situation, the Israeli prime minister is taking extra care this time around to make sure he is not caught in any perceived partisan favoritism. But as elections reach their final stages, Netanyahu’s resolve to stay out of the game is becoming harder to maintain, especially since his biggest American supporter has publicly thrown his support behind Trump.
“It’s interesting to see the gap between Netanyahu and [Sheldon] Adelson,” said Natan Sachs from the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “Netanyahu seems sincere in not wanting to intervene this time, or not wanting Trump to win, but on the other hand, it is very clear what Adelson wants.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to visit New York toward the end of September for the United Nations General Assembly. But the upcoming visit could also challenge Netanyahu’s non-intervention policy.
The Israeli leader has thus far avoided direct contact with Trump and Clinton. A sit down meeting with either candidates during his stay in New York could serve the interests of both campaign, seeking to reinforce their pro-Israel credentials. Even if Netanyahu manages to avoid this pitfall, he will still find it hard to steer clear of meeting some of the candidates’ top supporters. Adelson has been a regular on Netanyahu’s list of invitees watching his annual UN address from the UN gallery.
Netanyahu and Adelson, who has pledged his support for Trump and who reportedly promised up to $100 million in campaign donations, have also been known to meet up after the speech at one of the city’s fancy eating establishments.
Adelson is the most significant force driving support for Trump in Israel. Israel Hayom, the daily newspaper he owns, which is also known for its staunch pro-Netanyahu editorial line, has been delivering favorable reports and opinion articles about Trump for months, including several exclusive fluff interviews with the nominee.
Coinciding with Netanyahu’s visit to America, the Adelson-funded Israeli American Council will hold its annual conference in Washington. Standing out in the list of speakers in former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders who has recently endorsed Internet rumors regarding Clinton’s health condition. Netanyahu, as for now, is not scheduled to attend the conference.
Netanyahu’s main focus now is on improving relations with the Obama administration as the president prepares for his last months in office. The Israeli prime minister, who had never shied from confronting Obama, even publicly, now fears that a lame duck president, free of political constraints after the November elections, could take steps that would force Israel’s hand on the diplomatic scene.
Speaking to a group of leading American policy experts visiting the Middle East last month, Netanyahu expressed his concern that Obama may allow the passing of a United Nations Security Council resolution which will set guidelines for an Israeli - Palestinian peace accord, a move Israel strongly opposes and views as foreign intervention in its policy. In the past, the Obama administration, using the threat of a potential American veto, dissuaded European partners from raising and supporting such a UN resolution.
The meeting, according to reports in the Israeli press, was attended by a bipartisan slate of Middle East policy experts, who had served in the past in both Democratic and Republican administrations. This, too, was further proof of Netanyahu’s wish to avoid any semblance of partisan interference in the upcoming elections or of cozying up to either side.
Netanyahu, according to Israeli sources, is interested in meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Such a meeting could be an opportunity for both sides to finalize the new $40 billion 10 year military aid package to Israel which Obama would like to sign before leaving office.
The Israeli prime minister’s pivot to bipartisanship stands in stark contrast to the image he created during the 2012 election cycle. Then, Democrats pointed to Netanyahu’s hosting of Mitt Romney in Israel as a sign he preferred the Republican candidate.
“Many of Netanyahu’s natural points of reference in America were close to Romney,” said Sachs, “but these same people don’t necessarily support Trump and some of them even oppose him.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman