The prominent billboards unveiled in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this week showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump together, smiling and shaking hands, make us queasy. But not necessarily for the reasons you may think.
With Israel’s national elections in full swing, leading up to an April 9 Election Day, we understand why Netanyahu is playing up his enthusiastically warm relationship with the president. A recent international survey found that 69 percent of Israelis express confidence in Trump. After all, he has expressed support for the Jewish state more fully than any other president. He has also made good on his pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and, more substantively, has pressured the Palestinians and torn up the Iran nuclear deal signed by President Barack Obama as Netanyahu had hoped.
But one of the mainstays of the U.S.-Israel relationship always has been fostering a strong sense of bipartisanship. That means maintaining a positive relationship between the nations’ leaders and avoiding domestic political issues. After all, it’s inevitable that power shifts will take place; the party that is dominant today may be out of office next election, and it is critical to have strong support that is wide and deep.
Netanyahu has been criticized in the past for appearing to show favor to the Republicans. He greeted Mitt Romney with praise when the former Massachusetts governor visited Israel during his 2012 campaign for president, and Democrats in Washington are still upset at Netanyahu’s 2015 appearance before Congress to condemn the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal.
Obama, too, showed partisanship in his opposition to Netanyahu, and there have been episodes going back decades when Israeli prime ministers were criticized for seeming to favor one presidential candidate here over another.
In the short term, Netanyahu’s capitalizing on his relationship with Trump may pay off; in the long run, partisan politics can come back to bite candidates and erode the vital U.S.-Israel relationship.