(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Predictions are notoriously slippery, especially where U.S. elections are concerned. But there’s at least a strong possibility that after four years of a beautiful partnership Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could soon be facing life without Donald Trump.
While many of the U.S.’s other allies might find that a cause for relief, for Bibi the reaction is likely to be more complicated. Trump has lavished priceless gifts on Bibi -- the Golan Heights, a U.S. embassy relocation to Jerusalem and a permission to wage covert war against Iran. Trump tore up the Iran nuclear deal at Netanyahu’s urging and adopted Netanyahu’s design for a Palestinian mini-state in the West Bank. He even named the plan after himself.
In the last three Israeli electoral campaigns, Trump worked hard to keep Bibi in office. Now it is Trump who is running for re-election. The president fully expects Bibi to reciprocate.
But loyalty and gratitude are not among Bibi’s virtues. Recent polls show Trump losing by a large margin. The often more reliable Vegas odds make him a three-to-two underdog. Israeli diplomats in Washington report talking with increasingly demoralized Republicans and excited Democrats.
Yes, the odds were against Trump in 2016, too. But this time they are based less on his personality than on his failed performance in office. Trump has botched the corona crisis. His economic boom has melted down into the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression and a dramatic drop in GDP. He has responded to mass protests with bellicose law-and-order threats that have alienated even normally apolitical senior military officers. There is a hysterical tone his recent political ads; he no longer looks like a winner.
A Biden victory would end the Bibi-Trump honeymoon, but it would not necessarily be a disaster for Netanyahu. Biden is a lifetime Zionist with a long senatorial record of support for Israel. During the nasty spat between Bibi and Obama over the Iran nuclear pact, the vice president managed to avoid a breach with Netanyahu, whom he has called a “great, great friend.” In that tense period, Bibi placed an emotional condolence call to Biden after the death of his son, Beau. Together they recalled their many moments during a “20-year friendship.”
Biden is not only a friend, he is a centrist in a party whose progressive wing is not supportive of Israel. As president, he would not threaten military aid, as Democrat Bernie Sanders recently has. It is unlikely that he would reverse Trump’s recognition of Israel’s Golan annexation or return the U.S. embassy to Tel Aviv. There would be disagreement over how to deal with Iran and with the Palestinian issue, but it probably wouldn’t be disagreeable.
No matter how weak Trump looks going into November, Bibi will not publicly break up with him before the election. Trump would see it as a betrayal and certainly seek to take revenge. Even in defeat, he would still have large number of supporters and Twitter follows. Most of them like Bibi. The last thing he wants is to be labelled a traitor or an ingrate by his offended ex-partner. If there is to be a separation, Netanyahu wants to keep it amicable.
This will require some finesse. In the past, Trump has made televised campaign ads for Netanyahu, hosted him at high-profile Oval office meetings on the eve of elections and timed announcements of U.S. support to coincide with Bibi’s political needs.
Bibi will not happily reciprocate. He will likely invoke the principle of strict neutrality in foreign elections, a principle every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir has violated. He will use the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse for not paying a visit to the White House, and for discouraging a presidential trip to Jerusalem. In his communications with Republican evangelical Zionist leaders and American Jews, Bibi will decline to echo Trump’s charge, when it comes to Israel, Biden is the second coming of Obama.
If Biden wins, Bibi will have three main goals: 1) to win substantial new economic support from Washington during what looks to be a serious Israeli recession; 2) the adoption by the new administration of his view that Iran is the implacable enemy of both Israel and the US; and 3) preservation of the Trump Peace Plan.
He could get the first; there is still a lot of bipartisan support for Israel in Congress. He likely won’t get the second; appeasing Iran is a pillar of even moderate Democratic foreign policy. As for the third, it will require some rebranding. Trump’s Deal of the Century would likely be renamed a “realistic two-state solution” or something close. This is not far-fetched. Even the Palestinian leadership, which on Monday announced its willingness to reopen talks with Israel after six years, seems to be coming to that conclusion. Add a few new wrinkles and a new administration could call it “The Biden Plan.” It might even work.
Netanyahu still wants Trump to win. That is like having himself in the White House. Breaking up is hard to do. But, in the words of a song Trump has often played at his rallies, “You can’t always get what you want.” But, if you play your cards right, you can get what you need.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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