Early on election night, when the first projection for Virginia came through and put the state as “too close” to call, Britain’s SKY news did a drill-down of Virginia voters’ reasons for their presidential choice. Lots of voters who had plumped for Mitt Romney said they had done so primarily because of concerns about the economy. Many of those who had chosen Barack Obama — he ultimately took the state — said they had done so first and foremost because of his policies on health care. For what percentage of Virginia voters had foreign policy been the key issue that determined their vote? Zero. That’s right — 0%!
It was a sobering if unsurprising indicator of the American electorate’s priorities — a reminder for Israelis and others who are obsessed with the nuances of the Israeli-American relationship, and concerned about the regional challenges faced by the Jewish state and its distant ally, that the obsession is not widely shared among the 300 million-plus citizens of the United States.
Israel and its challenges, it is worth further remembering, are by no means the main foreign policy concern of those not-foreign-policy-obsessed Americans. The US has troops on the ground in foreign conflict zones; it is still reeling from the recent murder of its ambassador to Libya in a terrorist attack. As the thrust of the presidential debate on the subject made clear, insofar as Americans focus on foreign policy, their priority may well be seeking to avoid deploying on any new international battlefields. Having watched both Obama and his failed would-be successor assure them, in that debate, that they would strive mightily to avoid opening any such fresh military fronts, the overwhelming majority of voters put the matter aside, and made their presidential choice for a variety of reasons closer to home.
That is not to say, of course, that second term President Obama will henceforth devote a matching zero percent of his precious time to foreign policy. But as his impassioned victory speech showed with incandescent clarity, he knows full well that his people’s priorities relate to the domestic well-being of the United States.
The wrong horse?
You wouldn’t realize much of this, however, if your information on the American presidential election had been derived from the Hebrew media these past couple of days. Our newspapers, radio shows and TV news broadcasts have, quite rightly, been full of reports and analysis of Obama’s victory and Romney’s defeat. Rightly, too, they have pondered the implications of Obama’s reelection for this region, for the battle to thwart Iran, for Israel. But they have also overflowed with disclosures dramatically highlighting the damage ostensibly done to Israel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supposed intervention “on the losing side” — to quote the headline across page 6 of our biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth on Thursday.
So much attention has been devoted to the issue of Netanyahu’s purported wrong bet, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his stance on the elections was a key factor in the presidential race — that it was a veritable wonder that Obama managed to beat his challenger at all, given all that potent ammunition fired at him from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.
The evidence of Netanyahu’s alleged political crime is sketchy — largely focused on his public disagreement with the administration about the need for clear red lines to stop Iran; the fact that clips of Netanyahu taking positions at odds with the administration on Iran were used in Republican campaign advertisements, and the warmth with which he hosted Romney here this summer.
Netanyahu did make public the Israeli differences with the US on Iran — precisely as did the Obama administration with Israel. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey all but derided Israel’s military capacity, and Dempsey memorably said he would not wish to be “complicit” in an Israeli strike. Netanyahu also encapsulated Israel’s objections to the US “no red lines on Iran” policy in a few memorable, political ad-ready sound-bites, at his press conference with the visiting Bulgarian prime minister in September: “The world tells Israel to wait because there is still time. And I ask: Wait for what? Until when?” he said. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” To which Obama hit back with remarks about shutting out all the “noise” when considering American interests. A case of overt policy disagreement on Iran? Absolutely. Intervention in the presidential election campaign? Something of a stretch.
But exaggeration (the welcome afforded Romney this summer, for instance, differed in no significant way from the warm reception given to candidate Obama in 2008) and hyperbolic commentary can make even such minor “evidence” go a long way.
Underpinning the media focus is a domestic political game. The most bitter public critic of Netanyahu’s asserted pro-Romney favoritism is the man who preceded him as prime minister and reportedly entertains ambitions to succeed him as well: Ehud Olmert. Olmert last week memorably accused Netanyahu, though not by name, of “spitting” in Obama’s face. On Wednesday he did name, and seek to shame, Netanyahu, charging that the prime minister’s displayed preference for Romney had broken “all the rules” and risked damaging Israeli ties with the Obama administration. “Our prime minister intervened in the US elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote,” Olmert said — a reference to Netanyahu ally and dominant Republican presidential donor Sheldon Adelson. “Following what Netanyahu did in the last few months, the question arises of whether or not our prime minister has a friend in the White House… This may be very significant for us at critical junctures.”
According to Thursday’s “losing side” article in Yedioth — a newspaper which can be as markedly sympathetic to Olmert in its coverage as Adelson’s free Israeli tabloid Yisrael Hayom is sympathetic to Netanyahu — “Netanyahu’s people had bet on Romney and were shattered when Obama won.” A page earlier, columnist Sima Kadmon colorfully excoriated the prime minister for “spilling the hot soup on himself… and getting all of us scalded.” Anyone who thinks US-Israel ties won’t be adversely affected by his over-championing of Romney and undermining of Obama, she declared, “should think again.” (Incidentally, Yedioth relegated to Page 22 the pretty big news that the state is appealing Olmert’s two major corruption acquittals.)
Maariv, the failing tabloid rival of Yedioth, actually led its paper Thursday with a headline on the purported crisis, blaring: “The fear in the PM’s office: Obama will intervene in Israel’s elections.” The underline’s elaboration: The president is likely to impose an immediate diplomatic maneuver on Israel regarding the Palestinians and even to “embrace” would-be returning prime minister Ehud Olmert, “precisely in the way that Netanyahu did with Romney.”
Yes, that’s almost certainly Obama’s key priority now: Devising ways to ruin Netanyahu’s political career, ideally by advancing the potential candidacy of a former prime minister who is currently on trial in one corruption case, has just become the first prime minister ever convicted of a criminal offense in a second case, and must now fight back against the state’s appeal of his acquittal in two more.
“Some perspective, please,” a female panelist on Channel 2′s election broadcast implored on Wednesday morning, as the discussion focused ridiculously on the Israeli fallout from the US presidential elections. Israel, she pointed out, is not the big issue right now.
So, some perspective. Netanyahu may well be personally disappointed that his old friend Romney, whose world view is not a million miles from his own, did not win the presidency.
He may feel, as do many Israelis, that Obama has no gut affiliation with Israel — unlike, say, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (this is an emotional, not a partisan thing). He may also well feel, as do many Israelis (who would have voted 45-29% for Romney over Obama had we been the 51st state), that Obama is not sending tough enough messages to the Iranians about the imperative that they halt their nuclear drive.
But he also presumably has the wisdom to realize that reelection for Obama saved us all six months, while a president-elect Romney would have had to wait more than two months to take over and had to hire and gear-up an administration before he could possibly have focused on Iran. And he doubtless recognizes that there are no guarantees that a first-term Romney would have been more capable of mustering support for a resort to force if necessary than a second term president who has credibly sought to thwart Iran via sanctions and diplomacy.
The proximity principle
We in Israel have a problem with the Americans over Iran. It’s a problem we would have had if Romney had won on Tuesday. It’s a problem that doesn’t stem from Netanyahu’s personal presidential preference or the degree to which he did — or didn’t — display it.
Our problem is that we are physically closer to Iran than the United States, we are more immediately threatened by Iran than the United States, and our military capacity to inflict damage on the Iranian nuclear program is more limited than that of the United States — and may be about to disappear altogether. All this at a time when Obama, Romney and most other key players in the United States, just about everybody else in the international community, and plenty of very credible Israeli experts, are still championing the prospect of non-military action thwarting Iran’s drive to the bomb.
It is complicated still more by the fact that if we hold our fire now — as many of our most credible security chiefs believe we should, because the guillotine is not yet at our throat, to use the parlance of former Mossad chief Meir Dagan — we will essentially be subcontracting our security to other international players, and most relevantly to an America that simply does not want to open new areas of conflict. If those many local and overseas experts are right, and the Iranian program is halted with no need for a resort to military action, then we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief, and sing the praises of those whose cumulative pressure apparently persuaded Netanyahu not to strike thus far. If they’re wrong, however, it will soon be too late for Israel — a potential immediate casualty — to do much about it.
These are grave, fateful matters, that require nuanced, careful examination and handling — by politicians who should not let personal preferences or interests skew their judgments, and by the writers and commentators who convey these issues to the public. Reducing the dilemmas on Iran faced by the West, but most urgently by Israel, to a distorted focus on partisan preferences and personal frictions risks obscuring the genuine complexities.
In the case of Netanyahu and Obama, it also happens to be profoundly insulting — and not just to the prime minister. After heaping scorn on Netanyahu for his dereliction of the wider national interest in the cause of more marginal personal and political considerations, the critics warn that a rankled Obama might seek revenge for such slights in a way that would damage all of Israel.
“Anyone who knows the president understands that this is not how he thinks,” the US Ambasador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Wednesday, adding that talk of presidential revenge against Israel for Netanyahu’s political preferences was “ridiculous.” What a vindictive, mean-spirited little man Obama would be if he did think and act that way. Yet that’s precisely what Netanyahu’s accusers are suggesting.
By indicating that Israel should now brace for the wrath of a score-settling US president infuriated by Netanyahu’s ostensible intervention, they are implying that Obama is no more capable than Netanyahu of putting aside personal grudge and preference, no more capable of holding firm to his nation’s wider interest.