Since the last campaign, the Republicans in Washington that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held in a bear hug for more than a decade are out. The Democrats he largely alienated are ascendant.
“There is no question that it’s absolutely urgent for Israel to restore bipartisan balance, and I think Israelis recognize that,” said Mark Mellman, the U.S. Democratic pollster who advises candidates in both countries and leads the Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel lobbying group. “It was always the case that we were going to get back into power. And now we are.”
In Israel, however, the Netanyahu era has shifted the center of Israeli politics sharply to right not just in tone but on substance, bringing once-fringe positions into the mainstream and posing a challenge for any reset in relations with the Democrats. Even centrist parties have supported recent calls for Israel to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and all but one of Netanyahu’s main election challengers have renounced the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like him, they are deeply skeptical of President Biden’s diplomatic outreach to Iran.
Current polls give four Israeli candidates a chance to emerge from the March 23 election with a shot at assembling a slender majority coalition. Three of them represent right-wing parties: Netanyahu, former defense minister Neftali Bennett and former education minister Gideon Saar. The fourth, opposition leader Yair Lapid, hails from the center of the spectrum.
All have declared the need to restore some bipartisan balance to Israel’s relationship with its most important ally, which even conservative politicians here say has become perilously skewed toward the GOP.
Even Netanyahu, who previously campaigned on his close relationship with President Donald Trump and draped office towers with six-story posters of the two of them, now touts his long-standing friendship with Biden and many of the Democrats heading committees on Capitol Hill. Netanyahu’s detractors point out it took four weeks after the inauguration for Biden to place a traditional courtesy call to the prime minister.
Lapid, a onetime news anchor who advocates a Palestinian state, would be the most palatable for centrist Democrats, who vouch safe support for the Jewish state but cannot abide its lurch to the right under Netanyahu.
Speaking at a Brookings Institution conference in February, he slammed Netanyahu for approaching the American relationship as the Israel “branch” of the GOP. Lapid cited a provocative 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress in which Netanyahu trashed the Obama administration’s Iran policy and his tilt toward Republicans, which grew into a lovefest during Trump’s tenure.
“I don’t think it’s the place of an Israeli prime minister, just the other day, to be singing the obituary of Rush Limbaugh,” Lapid said. “I’m going to do much better work making sure Israel goes back to being a bipartisan issue in the United States.”
Israel’s next leader will emerge from a two-year political quagmire during which no party has been able to eke out a successful governing majority. The first two elections failed to produce a government at all. A third conducted at the start of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago produced an unwieldy emergency coalition of rivals, who bickered for seven months, before it failed to pass a budget and collapsed.
This time around, Netanyahu is fighting a challenge mostly from his right. Both Bennett and Saar, two former Netanyahu allies, are more conservative than he is and threaten to pull voters from his coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.
In the scrum of bargaining that will follow the election, both Saar and Bennett have said they are willing to join forces — with each other, with Lapid’s centrists, with other anti-Netanyahu factions — to deny the leader known here as “King Bibi” yet another turn in the top job.
Netanyahu, who is battling corruption charges in an ongoing criminal trial, is scrambling to extend his record 14 years in office by reaching even further to the right for new partners. He recently embraced the remnants of the banned Kahanist party, a Jewish extremist group that called for stripping Israel’s Arab citizens of their voting rights.
His next coalition, should he prevail, would probably be the most conservative of any of the candidates’. It could take all of Netanyahu’s vaunted political wiles to keep his supporters in line while seeking a rapprochement with Democrats in the United States.
“The pressure on Netanyahu will lead him to the right, but his political savvy will pull him in the other direction,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “He will really be between a rock and a hard place.”
Saar or Bennett, if given the chance to form a governing coalition, would be more likely to include moderate parties, giving them more room to make nice with Democrats despite their own rightward leanings, political analysts say.
Saar, a longtime backer of the West Bank settlements, says he remains “committed” to annexing them into Israel in the future. But he is known as a measured politician who has even won support from some former Lapid voters as the best chance to topple Netanyahu, whom he once challenged for leadership of the Likud party.
Dani Dayan, another former Likud member who joined Saar’s slate of candidates, said Saar would do much to heal the rift with Democrats that Netanyahu created.
“Probably in the Trump administration, he went a little too far,” said Dayan. “When you name a Golan Heights settlement ‘Trump Heights,’ that is embarrassing.”
Bennett, the son of immigrants from California who speaks colloquial English almost as flawlessly as Netanyahu, is a hard-liner on Palestinian and religious issues and known for divisive rhetoric.
But Bennett, who became a millionaire as a tech entrepreneur, is now running a technocratic campaign focused on ending the pandemic and restoring the economy. He is the only leading contender who has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu government.
In 2018, after rushing to Pittsburgh after the massacre of 11 worshipers at a Reform synagogue, Bennett won praise for his sympathetic embrace of that liberal Jewish community. But he was quickly drawn into the domestic contretemps, appearing on Fox News to defend Trump from accusations that his rhetoric had inspired extremists like the Pittsburgh shooter.
“Every now and then he will have to say or do something that will be very problematic for Democrats because his supporters will demand it,” said Nadav Tamir, a onetime Israeli consul general in Boston who now runs the Tel Aviv office of J Street, Washington’s left-leaning Jewish lobbying group. “But he understands America. He knows you have to deal respectfully with the American administration no matter who it is.”
As for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that Tamir represents, none of the candidates — not even Lapid — would be likely to make overtures to Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Squad and other lawmakers who would link U.S. military aid to Israel with it making concessions to the Palestinians.
“They see the progressive as enemies,” Tamir said. “They don’t talk to us. They are looking for old fashioned Democrats who will not put pressure on them.”
Shira Rubin contributed to this story from Tel Aviv.