For Obama and Netanyahu, four more years of mutual dislike and suspicion? Not so fast

The two leaders are unlikely to suddenly become best buddies, but history has defied conventional wisdom more than once about which US presidents are good or bad for Israel

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in New York, September 21, 2011 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in New York, September 21, 2011 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

A second term for President Barack Obama is the last thing Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for. Ever since he moved into the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2009, three months after Obama was inaugurated, Netanyahu was waiting for the day he could govern without Obama on his back. There was never any love lost between the two, and no one should expect the relationship between the two of them to improve in January if, or almost certainly when, Netanyahu matches Obama and gets reelected.

Still, what exactly a second Obama term means for Israel is not as clear as some may believe. The critics argue he will pay less heed to Israeli concerns about Iran, and tighten the screws on the Palestinian front, possibly forcing Jerusalem to make dire concessions regarding the stalled peace process. Others doubt he will significantly change course. But one thing seems certain: Obama’s victory will shake up domestic Israeli politics.

Let’s first look at how, if at all, Washington-Jerusalem relations will change as Obama enters his second term. It needs to be said, first, that the commander-in-chief is not the only decision-maker when it comes to US foreign policy. And in Congress, staunch support for Israel is a bipartisan matter of course.

“The Oval Office is extremely important, but so is the Congress and more than anything else the public on both sides, the Israeli nation and the American nation,” said Yoram Ben-Zeev, who for many years was in charge of Israel-US relations at the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s North America department. “I don’t think that personal relations between two leaders can constitute the anchor for the relations between the two nations.”

Still, some pundits fear a reelected Obama will seek revenge on Netanyahu. Revenge for the obstinacy on the peace process, revenge for being too pushy on the Iranian question, revenge for openly challenging him during a heated election campaign — and revenge, of course, for Netanyahu’s alleged meddling in the US elections politics, by being overly warm to Mitt Romney.

After all, these pundits argue, Obama only played nice to Israel during his first term (and “nice” is a relative term) because he knew he would never stand a chance of reelection if he vexed the powerful pro-Israel camp. But now that Obama has a free hand to do as he pleases, no longer dependent on voters, the fear is that he could seek to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2009 and increase pressure on Israel to make difficult concessions to restart the peace process.

‘The Oval Office is extremely important, but so is the Congress and more than anything else the public on both sides, the Israeli nation and the American nation’

“Things are going to be tough [between Jerusalem and Washington] — because of the personal mistrust and animosity [Obama] feels toward Netanyahu, but also because there are going to be some sharp disagreements, for example about Iran,” said Bar-Ilan University’s Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations and US Middle East policies.

Soon after the elections, the White House will enter direct negotiations with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program, Gilboa said. “Israel is quite concerned about these negotiations, because it thinks the Iranians are going to manipulate the Americans and perhaps even get an agreement that would allow them to continue with a nuclear-weapons program, under one disguise or another.”

Others are convinced, by contrast, that Obama during his second term will look exactly like Obama in his first term.

“He is not going to kiss Netanyahu when they meet, but I don’t think his policies will change very much,” said Gabriel Sheffer, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University. “He will continue to pursue his politics concerning the peace process and the Iranian issue on the one hand, and continue to support Israel in the military arena, giving Israeli additional money and missile defense systems, and so on.”

For all the personal tensions, and the differences over Iranian red lines, settlements, et al., between Washington in Jerusalem during the last four years, no one can deny the fact that security coordination between the two nations is at an all-time high.

“This administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in July.

Considering the annual military aid of $3 billion to help Israel maintain a qualitative edge in the region, plus $275 million in supplemental funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system, even Netanyahu would be hard-pressed to deny that.

Yet security cooperation is not everything. On a personal and on a political level, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu was always frosty and at times even almost hostile.

It seemed that one meeting was more awkward than the next — when there were meetings scheduled at all. During Netanyahu’s last trip to the US this September, Obama cited scheduling issues in explaining why he couldn’t find a few minutes to receive the Israeli prime minister.

Back in 2010, Netanyahu left Washington humiliated after talks about the stalled peace process and a possible settlement freeze ended without results. According to media reports, Obama walked out on a meeting with Netanyahu to have dinner and did not pose for a photo-op with his Israeli guest, which was widely seen as a diplomatic snub.

In May 2011, Netanyahu humiliated Obama, in turn, when he delivered what The Wall Street Journal called a “rare public rebuke” of the president, subjecting him to a personal history lesson in the Oval Office. Obama had said that the “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Netanyahu rebuffed the president’s idea, declaring flatly that Israel “cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible.”

Later that year, Obama was overheard speaking to the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he couldn’t stand Netanyahu. “You are fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama replied.

Then, last summer, at the height of a public debate about a possible Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, two things happened that made a bad relationship even worse.

In July, Netanyahu welcomed his old friend Romney with such overt warmth that some considered it an improper meddling in the US politics. Netanyahu never explicitly took sides in the presidential race. But whoever wanted to read between the lines could easily discern that Netanyahu preferred the Republican challenger to the incumbent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on Sunday July 29, 2012 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/GPO/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mitt Romney in Jerusalem, July 29, 2012 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/GPO/Flash90)

“I heard some of your remarks a few days ago — you said that the greatest danger facing the world is of the ayatollah regime possessing nuclear weapons capability,” Netanyahu told Romney in Jerusalem. “Mitt, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I think it’s important to do everything in our power to prevent the ayatollahs from possessing the capability.”

Fearing Tehran would soon reach a nuclear weapons capability, Netanyahu then publicly demanded the administration set red lines which, if crossed by the regime, would prompt a military response. But the White House rejected his call, insisting that sanctions are still the best way to stop Iran.

“We’re not setting deadlines,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted, leading Netanyahu to utter a sentence, on September 11 in Jerusalem, that further highlighted the troubled relations: “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.”

The diplomatic tensions between Washington have subsided somewhat in recent weeks, as the US election came closer and Netanyahu announced, at the United Nations General Assembly in September, that there was still some time — until spring or “at most by next summer” — before Iran would be able to build a nuclear weapon.

Campaign promises and saber-rattling aside, the White House’s position on Iran would hardly have looked different even if Romney had won. Both Romney and Obama agree that Tehran must not acquire nuclear weapons, that sanctions and diplomacy are the best way to stop the process, and that a military option remains on the table if all else fails. True, some analysts believe that a president Romney would be more inclined than Obama to allow an Israeli attack without US participation. Now, we’ll never know.

What about the peace process? While Romney was caught on tape saying he believes peace between Israelis and Palestinians is “almost unthinkable,” it is not outlandish to think Obama might want to initiate another attempt at ending the conflict.

“Obama would like to restart Israeli-Palestinians negotiations and could demand from Israel to make some concessions that would bring [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas to the table,” Bar-Ilan University’s Gilboa said. But it’s also plausible to assume Obama will focus on other issues (the economy?), as the chances for a lasting peace in the Holy Land are slim, and Obama might not want to waste his time working for an unattainable goal, Gilboa mused.

With Obama reelected, Olmert and Livni likely to run for Knesset

But Iran and the peace process may not be the only areas where the prime minister and the president are likely to clash.

“Obama will probably try to intervene in the Israeli elections,” which take place on January 22 — one day after the presidential inauguration — Gilboa predicted. If a center-left party opposing Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc had a serious candidate for the premiership, Obama could invite him or her to the White House, thus unofficially endorsing Netanyahu’s opponent, Gilboa said. It wouldn’t be the first time Washington tried to influence an Israeli election, he added.

Even if the old-new president prefers not to interfere in Israeli politics, his reelection undoubtedly will affect the election campaign here.

The right-wingers will say that now more than ever Israel needs a strong leader who can stand up for Israel’s interests regardless of what the Americans say. The left-wingers will argue that Netanyahu ruined Israel’s relations with its most important ally and that a fresh face and a new policy is required.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni have indicated they would decide whether to run in the upcoming elections depending on the outcome of the presidential elections. With Obama remaining in the Oval Office, the former Kadima leaders may be encouraged to throw their hats in the ring. Expect announcements soon.

Olmert this week slammed Netanyahu over his handling of the Iranian question. While Netanyahu says Israel has the right to defend itself and dare not entrust its future to others, even to the United States, Olmert mockingly asked which military equipment Israel intends to use for any attack on Iranian facilities, hinting that US aid and coordination are crucial to the IDF’s ability to wage war.

So is Obama’s reelection good for Israel? Many left-leaning Israelis will celebrate, while many to the right will mourn. But history shows that the complexities of the Middle East often defy simplistic and stereotypical notions.

Many Israelis would describe Jimmy Carter, for example, as one of the most pro-Arab presidents in history. Today, Carter — the author of “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” — endorses the Palestinians’ unilateral bid for statehood and is one of the fiercest critics of Netanyahu’s government. Yet his defenders would argue that it was that same Jimmy Carter who, during his time in the White House, urged Menachem Begin to sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, a milestone regarded as one of the most important diplomatic and strategic achievements in Israel’s history.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, is hailed by many right-wingers as one of the friendliest presidents to Israel. However, one could argue, his political legacy vis-à-vis Israel is rather meager. During his two terms, peace was as elusive as ever, and his war in Iraq destabilized the region, allowing Iran to strive for regional hegemony. He opposed the 2007 strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor. And he didn’t halt Iran’s nuclear drive.

Is Obama good for Israel? The definitive answer belongs with the historians of the future. One thing’s for sure. On Tuesday, the American people gave him four more years to be good for the United States.

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