WASHINGTON – Jerusalem Post readers chose the US presidential election as the international story of the year, and it’s no surprise given that the contest between US President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney dominated headlines ever since the Republican primaries kicked off in January.
Though the campaign overwhelmingly focused on the economy and domestic issues such as jobs, housing and the deficit, the presidential race is by no means solely an American story. Its outcome affects every corner of the world and is particularly important in the Middle East, where US policy on the peace process, Arab Spring and Iran is so crucial to shaping what happens in the region.
Obama has pursued policies in each of these areas that have both pleased and discouraged Israeli voters. His support for defense cooperation – particularly record funding for the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system – was welcomed by Israelis at the same time that his pressuring of Israel over settlement construction early in his term turned them off. The speed at which he switched from being strong supporter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – a key ally for Israel -- to calling for his ouster as street protests raged alarmed many in Jerusalem. And on Iran, his policy of stringent sanctions has been welcomed, but his wariness about using military force – and particularly the thought of Israel using force – has raised consternation among some members of the public.
These concerns, coupled with the cold relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, mean many Israelis don’t trust Obama, and polls in Israel before the election showed Romney to be the population’s clear preference.
However, American Jews, who traditionally strongly prefer Democrats, have always been more enthusiastic about Obama than Israelis. They continued to back Obama by an overwhelming margin – 69 percent to Romney’s 30 – but that number was considerably weaker than the support he enjoyed from American Jewry in 2008. The drop in support was also steeper than the drop among American voters as a whole from 2008 to 2012. That could be a sign that concerns over Obama’s Middle East policies and relationship with Israel at least somewhat factored into the Jewish vote.
However, on the campaign trail Obama – Romney, too – again and again stressed his support for Israel and his concern for its safety. Israel was one of the most-mentioned countries during the race, and overall Middle East issues dominated the foreign policy debate between the candidates.
How to handle Iran, the pace of withdrawal in Afghanistan, America’s role in Syria and whether to engage with new Islamist governments in the Arab world were some of the key international subjects raised.
In the end, though, the Middle East story that had the biggest impact on the race was a terrorist attack on the US outpost in Benghazi, Libya on September 11 that left four American personnel dead, including the ambassador to Libya. The controversy about how the Obama administration characterized and handled that incident made for a major point of contention in the closing weeks of the campaign.
But despite Republican attacks on the White House over Libya, Obama prevailed and gets to keep his job. Now, as he begins his second term, he will have four more years to try to make progress on the same Middle East problems – Iran, the Arab Spring, the peace process – that vexed him during his first term. Maybe his decisions on one of these issues will determine what the top story of 2013 will be.
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