Earlier this year, giant billboards, showing US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands, sprang up on Israeli highways. The photo, accompanied by the tagline, “Netanyahu, in a different league”, was signed at the bottom by “The Likud”.
On February 5, the US President shared a photograph of one of these billboards on his official Instagram account. The US embassy in Jerusalem insisted that the Trump administration does not favour Netanyahu in the upcoming elections.
Then on March 25, Trump invited Netanyahu to stand next to him as he signed a proclamation formally recognising Israel’s claim over the disputed Golan Heights. The US president declared that “after 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognise Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights”.
A pertinent question here is why, after all this time, the US couldn’t wait another three weeks until the Israeli people had elected their new government. What was so pressing about it that the Trump administration had to hasten to change the country’s traditional policy regarding the status of the Arab territories that were occupied by Israel in 1967, just weeks before the Israeli elections?
One needs to be extremely naive to believe that this move has nothing whatsoever to do with Israeli and US domestic politics and the powers that connect them (ie, the Jewish and Evangelical lobbies).
All the media buzz about the US’s recognition of Israel’s claim over the Golan Heights, just like the news of its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, is the ideal present to the Israeli right. Netanyahu is getting the credit for convincing the most important superpower in the world to change its longtime Middle East policy.
The national consensus in Israel regarding the annexation of the Golan and East Jerusalem, and the settlement policy in those territories, forced the Zionist parties from across the political spectrum to praise Netanyahu’s “historic diplomatic achievements”. The Likud’s political rivals were left with the abstract warning that the day after the elections, the Trump administration will submit its peace plan and demand that Netanyahu pays for all these “presents” with territorial currency. It remains to be seen if this will indeed happen.
So far, other than paying lip service to the “ultimate deal”, Trump has only offered Netanyahu free meals, while putting the Palestinians on a strict diplomatic and economic diet. This is what makes his interference in Israeli domestic politics different from his predecessors, who also meddled in Israeli elections.
A number of US presidents, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, have intervened in Israeli elections in the past, most of the time seeking to push for a government willing to accept US proposals within the peace process.
There have been administrations that were more involved than others in the peace negotiations. There have also been presidents who were more tuned than others to the pressure from the conservative “friends of Israel”. However, Trump is the only US president so far who is willing to undermine the prospects of peace in order to satisfy those “friends”.
President Carter spent a lot of time trying to secure peace between Israel and Egypt and, as a result, influenced the result of the 1981 Israeli elections in a major way. The Likud used the historic Camp David Accord and the trilateral handshake between Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in March 1979 for leverage in its election campaign, ultimately winning the vote and another mandate.
A decade later, in 1992, President H W Bush also played a major role in the Israeli elections. He was the only president in the last three decades who linked the peace process to the Israeli pro-settlement policy.
Bush conditioned the approval of $10bn in US loan guarantees for Israel on a complete moratorium on its settlements project. The Likud government, headed by Yitzhak Shamir and supported by the Jewish lobby and a Congress dominated by the Democratic Party, complained that Bush was meddling with the Israeli democratic process.
In an op-ed for the New York Times headlined Why should Shamir have it both ways?, I argued that unconditional aid would also be interference in Israeli domestic politics. It would demonstrate, I argued, that the right is right: You can build settlements, disrupt peace efforts and get guarantees, you can absorb one million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and keep business as usual with the US.
In his book, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace, former American chief negotiator Dennis Ross wrote that Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker explicitly urged Arab leaders to keep the post-Madrid negotiation process alive in order to bolster the Israeli peace camp in the upcoming elections. In his memoirs, The Politics of Diplomacy, Baker wrote that Bush eventually started calling Shamir “that little sh**” behind closed doors.
In the 1996 elections, after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, President Bill Clinton went out of his way to help Shimon Peres stay in power. He organised a 30-nation summit at Sharm el-Sheikh for a memorable photo opportunity with Peres. He took him back to Israel on Air Force One to address pro-peace rallies together and pledged extra US aid.
In a 2018 interview for Israel’s Channel 10, Clinton admitted that he tried to help Peres “in a way that was consistent with what I believed to be in Israel’s interest.” He didn’t say anything about his interest to help his wife receive the support of the New York Jewish constituency in the congressional election. After the collapse of the summer 2000 Camp David Summit, Clinton put all the blame on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, which was an attemp to help PM Ehud Barak in his electoral race against Likud’s Ariel Sharon.
Since Clinton’s time, what has not changed is the fact that the outcome of any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will eventually require Israel to make some territorial concessions. This is perceived in the circles of the Jewish and Christian Zionist right as a strategic risk, if not a religious sin.
Thus, using American leverage in order to pursue peace is considered by those groups illegitimate interference in Israeli domestic affairs. They discourage every Republican politician from pressing Israel to break the impasse in the diplomatic process.
The reluctance of the Trump administration to use its leverage to put an end to the occupation and its contribution to the stalemate in the peace negotiations serves the “free-of-charge” annexation strategy of the Israeli right.
Trump is the first US president to convince the Israeli public that Netanyahu is able not only to have the American cake and eat it, but also get some extra cherries on top.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article wrongly stated that Ehud Barak was running against Benjamin Netanyahu in 2001. It has been amended to reflect the fact that he ran against Ariel Sharon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.