Campaign rhetoric: Policy statements or political preferences?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Barack Obama meet in the White House in this undated file photo. The hostility between the two leaders may affect the outcome of the Israeli elections slated to take place in March.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Barack Obama meet in the White House in this undated file photo. The hostility between the two leaders may affect the outcome of the Israeli elections slated to take place in March.

As Israel embarks on the election trail, there are already charges that President Barack Obama and other American government officials are making known their opposition to Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu – subtly and blatantly expressing their opinions.

Netanyahu and his supporters are claiming that Secretary of State John Kerry made this clear in his recent remarks at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in Washington. After stating: “We will
absolutely not involve ourselves in any way in the middle of the choice of the people of Israel,” he stressed that “achieving a negotiated two-state solution will, however, remain high on the agenda of this administration of the United States.”

Continuing, Kerry noted, “For now, it is important that we keep the hopes of a lasting peace alive, that we support those who believe it is still possible, and that we
continue to work to build the Palestinian economy and create the conditions for
successful negotiations.“

A policy statement or political preference? Interpretation clearly depends on the candidate.

For some politicians, if the American administration is considered “unfriendly to Israel,” negative comments become talking points in a candidate’s favor. “Any interference will just give us more seats,” Knesset member Danny Danon told The Jerusalem Post just before the 2013 Knesset elections. If that was true then, it is even truer this time around as Netanyahu faces rivals who claim he has moved too close to the center.

Danon left the prime minister’s Likud party this week for Habayit Hayehudi, a right-wing party that is more strident in opposition to negotiating with the Palestinians.

While not on the same level as official pronouncements, the American Jewish community has always been involved in Israeli elections – both fundraising for candidates and using organizational positions to publicly back their choice.

“The next 96 days leading up to the March 17 elections offer American Jews a rare opportunity to influence Israel’s future character – not through their pocketbooks, but by asserting their vision of what a Jewish, democratic state should look like,” Ori Nir, Americans for Peace Now’s director of communications and public outreach, wrote in Haaretz this week.

At the other end of the spectrum, Israel Hayom, the free Israeli daily funded
entirely by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, continues its unabashed cheerleading for Netanyahu, alternating between praising his performance and warning of the dire consequences should he be unseated.

The Chabad movement last actively intervened in an election campaign in 1996, when it publicized the famous slogan “Bibi is good for the Jews” and organized airlifts to bring eligible voters to Israel. While no longer quite as vocal, some Chabad leaders have also spoken out in this election cycle on behalf of political parties consistent with their beliefs and partial to their interests. Adherents of Chabad, like those of other chasidic movements, tend to follow the recommendations of their rebbes almost en masse.

The infusion of American-style politics – replete with well-known American political advisors – began in 1996 when Netanyahu hired Republican guru Arthur Finkelstein to help him win the election. The cost of this expert advice was reportedly funded by wealthy American Jews.

Finkelstein was again on hand in 1999 when Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak and his American team headed by the Democrats’ darling, James Carville. He, too, is
reported to have been funded by American donors. Over the years, the presence
of American experts has become so commonplace, it is virtually ignored.

Obama is hardly the first American president to be accused of trying to influence Israeli elections. Historians point to the refusal of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to grant Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s request for loan guarantees in 1992 – only to approve the guarantees two months after he lost to Yitzhak Rabin.

Sometimes the intervention boomer-angs. After Rabin was assassinated and
Shimon Peres became interim prime minister, President Bill Clinton almost explicitly endorsed him.

According to Middle East expert Aaron David Miller, who served six secretaries of state, “Clinton went out of his way to praise Peres’ leadership and insisted on referring to the upcoming election in a reference that all but said ‘vote for Peres if you’re serious about peace.’ ” Yet, Peres narrowly lost to Netanyahu.

Miller went on to state that in December 2000, a month before the end of his term, Clinton was prepared to “broker an agreement between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, not least in order to help Barak defeat Ariel Sharon in elections scheduled for February 2001. But the deal foundered and Barak lost.”

On the flip side, implication and intervention is a two-way street. Israeli officials have been known to indicate their preferred candidate in U.S. presidential elections, putting the government in an uncomfortable position. While serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Rabin had to call a special press conference to reiterate that remarks attributed to him as supporting Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign were “misquoted and incorrect.”

Much more recently, Netanyahu has been accused of all but endorsing Mitt Romney in his 2012 race against Obama, which contributed to in the growing animosity emanating from the White House.

In America and Israel – and many other places as well — the rhetoric of election politics tends to obscure the validity of the claims and the truth becomes lost in a fog of words, as advisers determine how to use them to their advantage.

Sarabeth Lukin is an American/Israeli journalist who lives in Jaffa.

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