American Jews streaming into Washington for AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference next week are not only getting a chance to hear from members of Congress and American politicians. In the midst of a heated Israeli election season, up on the conference’s main stage they are going to hear directly from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz. Despite the proximity to Israel’s April 9 election day and the closeness of the race, Netanyahu and Gantz are both leaving the pool of potential voters behind to come talk to a large audience containing almost no voters who will be casting the ballots that will determine Israel’s next prime minister. Despite this, it is a strategy that is almost certainly going to pay off for Netanyahu. For Gantz, however, it is a different story.
In a race where an incumbent prime minister is running for reelection at a time when Israel’s borders are largely quiet, terrorism is relatively low and confined to smaller incidents rather than mass suicide bombings, and the economy is strong, it is remarkable how few issues Netanyahu seems to truly own. Despite quiet borders – and any fair assessment gives enormous credit to Netanyahu for how he has managed Israel’s tricky situation across the Golan with Syria, Russia, and Iran – many Israelis sense that a serious clash with Hizballah is only a matter of time. Putting terrorism at the forefront of a campaign is risky given the persistence of nagging lone wolf attacks and the fact that one need only observe the riots at the Gaza border to remember that Netanyahu’s time in office has not brought Hamas rule any closer to an end. The strength of the economy from a macro perspective belies the fact that many Israelis are still struggling with the high cost of living and an inequality gap that puts Israel at the top of the OECD. What Netanyahu can truly boast about with no real pushback is his management of Israel’s diplomatic relationships, first and foremost the strength of U.S.-Israel relations resting on the shoulders of his cultivation of President Trump.
Trump has so far been the gift that keeps on giving for Netanyahu. He treats his Israeli counterpart as an equal, paying him a visit in his home on Balfour Street early in his term. He goes out of his way to stress the closeness of the relationship between the two of them, including posting on Instagram a Likud campaign poster of he and Netanyahu shaking hands. He has done and said nothing to give even the hint that any American pressure exists on Netanyahu regarding Israeli-Palestinian issues. And of course, he has given Netanyahu policy gift after policy gift, from pulling out of the Iran deal to moving the embassy to Jerusalem to closing the Palestinian mission in Washington and cutting all U.S. funding to the West Bank and Gaza. Some of these Trump was itching to do irrespective of Israel, such as the Iran deal abrogation, while some don’t serve any clear American or Israeli interest – and in fact, are counterproductive on both counts – but are helpful to Netanyahu domestically, such as shuttering USAID in the West Bank. All of this has taken place on the heels of the Obama presidency, which many Israelis viewed as disastrous and which Netanyahu took great pains to portray as a storm in the face of which he was bravely standing his ground.
As a result, Netanyahu’s singular policy argument in this campaign is that he is responsible for the good graces in which Israel finds itself in Washington. Netanyahu has even parlayed this argument into better relations with other countries, who view him as a Trump whisperer and a powerful lobbyist for their interests with an American president whose whims seem to change based on the Fox and Friends guest contributor lineup. When Netanyahu comes to AIPAC, he is getting an opportunity to double down on this argument. Not only is he going to address American Jews, but he is going to be feted by the White House and undoubtedly come away with something he can use in his campaign back home. He will also get a standing ovation from thousands of American Jews, allowing him to portray the rebuke he received from American Jewish establishment organizations over his courting of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party as a temporary rift that has healed with no lasting damage. He will be treated at the White House and at the convention center as King Bibi, and while he will not be speaking directly to Israel voters, there is no question that Israeli voters will be his main audience. The AIPAC stage and everything that comes with it in the Trump era plays directly to Netanyahu’s core strength.
In comparison, Gantz is going to look overmatched, no matter how well he performs. Gantz is coming to AIPAC so that he can show Israeli voters that he is able to work the halls of power in Washington as well, and that he takes the relationship with American Jewry seriously and understands that they are the linchpin of Israel’s favorable standing in the U.S. But what Israeli voters are going to see when they compare Netanyahu and Gantz side by side will be an experienced prime minister and a would-be prime minister struggling to catch up. Gantz will receive enthusiastic applause from AIPAC attendees, yet it will pale in comparison to the thunderous welcome given to Netanyahu, who has addressed AIPAC for years and is far more popular inside the convention center than he is in nearly any other environment save a Likud campaign rally. Gantz will glad-hand and chat with American politicians, while Netanyahu will greet them with hugs and the familiarity that befits old friends. Gantz will organize some meetings around town, while Netanyahu will show up at the White House as the images of him and Trump will be beamed straight back to Israeli television sets. Gantz can give the performance of his life, and it simply will not matter. Through no fault of his own, there is no plausible scenario where he comes away from AIPAC looking like better prime ministerial material than Netanyahu.
The AIPAC playing field is tilted in such a way that Netanyahu benefits from coming to Washington less than three weeks before the election, and Gantz does not. If Gantz wanted to put his time to better use, he’d stay home and try to sway as many Israeli voters as he can on their own turf, rather than trying to beat Netanyahu on what is in many ways his own home court.