When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets US President Barack Obama on Tuesday, both leaders will be just a few hours beyond bruising domestic health-related battles.
For Obama, it will be just two days after his signature health care reform passed Congress by seven votes. For Netanyahu, it will be just two days after his cabinet passed, by one vote, the relocation of Barzilai Medical Center’s planned reinforced emergency room because the original site sits on ancient graves.
Both decisions are vastly unpopular at home.
A Pew Research Center Poll from mid-March showed that 48 percent of the American public generally opposed the sweeping health care legislation that passed Congress, while only 38% generally favored it.
And regarding the Barzilai emergency room, anyone listening to the radio or reading a paper on Monday could easily sense that this decision is wildly unpopular with most of the Israeli public. Netanyahu himself was enough in tune with the sentiment to have issued a statement from Washington calling for a reassessment.
Obama pushed through a health care reform package, despite the likelihood that it would hurt his party in the midterm elections in November, because he believed it was right thing for America and that it was inconceivable that in a country of such vast wealth, so many millions of people would be uninsured.
And he pushed it through despite the predictions that – as a result of the health insurance reform bill – the Democrats will get clobbered at the polls in November.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, voted for moving the Barzilai hospital emergency room even though it is clear he did not identify with the cause and would have preferred that the NIS 136 million needed to do this would be spent elsewhere, because he needed this to keep his coalition stable.
Because of the vast difference in our political systems, those congressmen who voted for the health care bill in the US even though their constituents might not have wanted them to do so are likely to pay a price for it at the ballot box in November. Whereas in Israel, there is really no way to punish those ministers who voted for the Barzilai plan. Besides, by the time elections swing around again, there will have been a million other issues to have distracted the Israeli voter, and no one will remember.
But what does this mean for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting? Simply this: Netanyahu will go into the meeting knowing his coalition is secure, and that even a slap from the US administration will not bring about the dissolution of his government.
By supporting the relocation of the hospital’s emergency room, Netanyahu disarmed a potential land mine for his coalition. Had Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) resigned over this issue, as he threatened to do, then the ripple effects could have eventually forced Shas, who would not want to look any less haredi than UTJ, to bolt as well. And then, presto, Netanyahu’s coalition of 74 would have been reduced to 58.
Netanyahu’s decision to set up a committee will be unlikely to take Litzman out of the coalition since committee deliberations can give Litzman an opportunity to back down from a decision very unpopular even among segments in his own community.
If there has been one constant throughout Netanyahu’s first year in office, it has been efforts – successful ones at that – to maintain coalition stability. With all the discomfort the Ramat Shlomo brouhaha with the US over the last two weeks might have caused, Netanyahu’s coalition is not tottering.
He meets the US president with his coalition intact, and – thanks to the vote on Barzilai – not threatened by a side issue. He doesn’t have to give in to Obama’s demands or face new elections at home.
Paradoxically, Obama, even though he pushed through an extremely significant piece of legislation, did do at the cost of highlighting the partisanship that now exists in Washington. If he came to DC espousing new, non-partisan politics, the fact that his massive health reform passed without a single Republican vote – not one – just shows how partisan the debate in Washington has become.
While Obama emerged successful from the health-care debate, and with his own image burnished by it, he now will surely want to change the charged partisan atmosphere in Washington and strive – though it may be impossible to achieve – for a more bipartisan footing.
As such he will likely try to defuse any issues that could highlight the Republican-Democratic divide – one of those issues potentially being Israel.
If 10 days ago Obama had no qualms about sending US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his top aide David Axelrod to publicly scold Israel, he may be more reticent today precisely because of the blow-back from that incident.
That scolding was accompanied by a not insignificant amount of
congressional criticism, the vast majority of it from Republicans.
Now, with Obama in full flush of his health-care victory but obviously
looking down the line at November, it is hard to believe the president
would want to make ties with Israel an issue Republicans could rally
around, especially since so many Democrats will be vulnerable in
Though the disagreements between the current US administration and
Israeli government continue to exist, Obama now has a greater interest
in publicly downplaying and understating them – at least until November.