Netanyahu campaigns on cozy friendship with Trump ahead of Israel's April election

With a cloud of corruption charges swirling around him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping his cozy relationship with President Trump will not only solidify his base but also court undecided voters ahead of April’s elections.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has erected two huge billboards on major highways in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that show him and Trump smiling, clasping hands and touting Netanyahu as being a “league apart” from his political rivals.

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Trump on Tuesday reposted a photo of the billboards on his Instagram feed which prompted Netanyahu to thank Trump in a tweet.

The prime minister has been busy lately trying to mold his politics in Trump’s image.

Netanyahu has adopted Trump’s “fake news” catchphrase to go after media outlets he believes aren’t giving him a fair shake, and has also started to publicly target perceived domestic enemies.

The pro-Trump push in Netanyahu’s campaign reflects Trump’s popularity in Israel, one of the few countries where an alliance with the American president is considered a political asset. By tying his political ambitions to Trump, Netanyahu hopes to sail into a fifth term.

“This administration, not just Trump, has been the friendliest administration to Israel since 1948,” Michael Oren, a deputy minister and former ambassador to Washington, said. “Netanyahu is just tapping into these current global trends of people living in a world of uncertainty who want strong, sometimes brutally strong, leaders.”

President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara walk into the White House in Washington.

President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara walk into the White House in Washington. (AP)

Netanyahu and Trump enjoy strong personal rapport. Netanyahu also seems to relish Trump’s attitude toward the Middle East, not only on Iran but also his hands-off approach to the Palestinian issue and Israeli settlement construction. After an icy eight-year relationship with former President Barack Obama, Netanyahu has gone out of his way to praise Trump at every turn.

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He also held his tongue on Trump’s various scandals, even after a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, when Trump appeared to defend the actions of white supremacists. On a visit to Washington, Netanyahu even implored critics to stop questioning Trump over the supposed anti-Semitism of some of his supporters.

While Trump’s isolationism, particularly his planned pullout from Syria, may not be good for Israel, his unabashed pro-Israel rhetoric has made him popular domestically, said Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s most influential columnists. Beyond a confluence of interests, Trump and Netanyahu seem to share a populist streak against their countries’ more liberal establishments — to the delight of their nationalist bases.

Netanyahu has responded to a series of corruption investigations with Trump-like attacks on Israeli media, law-enforcement, judiciary and other “elites” he believes are bent on his removal. He is quick to deride any critic as a “leftist,” and, like Trump, has taken to social media to whip up his base.

In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 photo, an election campaign billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Israel.

In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 photo, an election campaign billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Israel. (AP)

“Netanyahu is a person who knows how to learn and imitate others and he’s been doing it in the past two-three years since Trump rose to power,” Barnea said. “He’s been far harsher in his domestic expressions and he knows that you create a political victory by pitting one sector against another.”

Trump, who endorsed Netanyahu in a pre-Israeli election clip in 2013 — even before he got into politics — appears to equally admire the Israeli leader.

Trump is expected to host Netanyahu in a lavish state visit to Washington shortly before the April 9 election in Israel.

But while beneficial in the short-term, some warn the tight alignment with Trump could have negative long-term implications.

Israel, once a source of solid bipartisan support, has become an increasingly divisive issue among Americans in recent years. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last year, for instance, found Republicans more sympathetic to Israel than Democrats by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. Some fear an eventual backlash from Democrats.

“The more that Democrats don’t like Trump, the more that anything he associates himself with, in this case Netanyahu, gets drawn into that equation,” said Ron Klein, a former congressman who now chairs the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “For those of us who are pro-Israel, that’s unhealthy.”

Netanyahu is not alone in tapping into Trump’s appeal.

Likud backbencher Oren Hazan recently said the highlight of his term was the selfie he took with Trump during a 2017 visit. Even Netanyahu’s top challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, chose a campaign slogan — “Israel Before Everything” — that many viewed as echoing “America First.”

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Police have recommended indicting Netanyahu on three corruption cases, and Israel’s attorney general is expected to announce his decision whether to charge him before the elections.

Back in 2009, it was Obama who offered inspiration to Israeli campaigners. An ultra-Orthodox Jewish party translated “yes we can” into its campaign slogan and Netanyahu designed his Web page after Obama’s. But a decade later, Trump is the hot commodity.

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“It’s part of the Americanization of our politics. The difference is that Israeli campaigns stole tactics from Obama but still maintained a certain distance from him,” said Barnea. “Trump is considered ‘one of us.’”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.