Foreign Aid, Trump Style: Getting Netanyahu Re-Elected

Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office. 

High officials in Benjamin Netanyahu's government don't usually gush praise for foreign reports on human rights in Israel and the occupied territories. 

Until now. The State Department's annual human rights report came out on Wednesday, with 113 pages on Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely's response:“Our greatest friend, the United States, continues to stand up for historical truth. ... This is an achievement of the prime minister and of our work in the [Foreign] Ministry.” 

The reason for her euphoria was an omission: The State Department's report no longer refers to the West Bank, Gaza or the Golan Heights as “occupied.” The report refers to the "Israeli-controlled" Golan and to “Israeli-controlled” parts of the West Bank, as distinct from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

 “The fact that the definition ‘occupied territory’ is missing from an official document of the State Department is an important step for Israel’s foreign relations and for the future of the settlements,” Hotovely said. 

She kept herself from saying, “...and a real help to Prime Minister Netanyahu's election campaign.” I dare to guess that she was thinking those words, but was diplomatic enough not to say out loud what is happening: President Donald Trump and his lackeys are doing their best to get Netanyahu reelected. A quick Orwellian editing of the human rights report is one part of that effort.

To return to the prime minister's office after Israel's April 9 election, Netanyahu has to jump some hurdles. First, there's the attorney general's warning that he intends to indict Netanyahu in three separate cases of massive misuse of his office for his personal benefit. Second, Israeli schools are failing their students, the national health-care system desperately needs an intravenous of cash, a quarter of the country is under the poverty line and the spectacular new high-speed train to Jerusalem constantly breaks down. So stressing domestic achievements isn't a great option.

Third, the multi-party electoral system makes it essential for him to keep voters from shifting from his Likud party either to smaller, hard-right parties or to his chief challenger, ex-general Benny Gantz's Blue and White party.  

Besides constantly claiming that the attorney general, the media and Gantz are all wild left-wingers out to destroy him, Netanyahu's strategy has been a foreign relations frenzy. He flies to Chad to establish diplomatic ties with the Muslim-majority African country. His office churns out announcements about foreign leaders who have come to Israel to meet him. He publicly meets Arab foreign ministers, and leaks other meetings. 

The intended message of all this (even when Arab leaders angrily object) is that Israel is in a great situation internationally, and that the world doesn't care about the Palestinian issue. 

So for Netanyahu, the omission of “occupation” from the new State Department report is a strategic gift. It seems to demonstrate his warm relations with the United States, and seems to prove that Israel can goright on building settlements, occupying the West Bank and besieging Gaza without hurting those relations. Never mind how his romance with Trump will affect U.S.-Israel relations when America's post-Trump hangover comes. Never mind that under the Israeli government's own legal stance before Israeli courts, the West Bank is under military occupation. And never mind, most of all, that three million Palestinians or so in the West Bank and nearly two million in Gaza haven't vanished. In the very short term, until April 9, Hebrew headlines about the State Department report may help Netanyahu convince right-wing voters that he protects settlements, and may persuade squishy centrists not to worry about the occupation. (Unless, that is, they are overshadowed by renewed fighting with Hamas in Gaza.)

Dropping the “occupied” label for the Golan Heights is loaded in another way. At the beginning of the year, Netanyahu used a visit by National Security Adviser John Bolton to urge the Trump administration to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Just a few days ago, Trump's Senate ally Lindsey Graham visited the heights with Netanyahu and said he'd push for U.S. recognition of the Israeli claim. 

Despite a State Department denial of any change in policy, the language in the human rights report got intense attention in Israel - and looked like a deliberate hint that Trump would meet Netanyahu's request. If he does, it will focus world attention on the Golan after years in which the Syrian civil war removed all pressure from Israel to withdraw. But in the meantime, even that hint of an American policy change could help Netanyahu hold onto his base.

To top all this off, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Israel next week and meet with Netanyahu. That's not standard practice when a country is at the peak of an election campaign. Several days later Netanyahu will be at the White House. The photo op will be a superb, free campaign advertisement.

If Trump thinks boosting Netanyahu will gain him some Jewish votes in America, that's almost certainly another of his delusions. If he thinks it will help him evangelicals, he's probably on more solid ground. But electoral considerations are just part of the story. Trump doesn't care about Palestinians, or about an international order that bars taking territory by force. He likes the kind of elected leaders who are slipping toward authoritarianism, especially when they compliment him often. 

As for Netanyahu, his first goal has been to convince voters that the corruption cases are all fake news. Not all of his base will buy that, so his second goal is to persuade the rest that even if he's a crook, he's a crook who is convincing the world that settlements are no problem and that occupation isn't occupation. Trump is helping. If Israel pays a price later, that's later. Netanyahu is thinking about April 9. 

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