US President Obama speaks in White House Rose Garden 370.
(photo credit:Yuri Gripas / Reuters)
The most neo-Conservative and Republican of Israeli prime ministers, Benjamin
Netanyahu, has had the misfortune to have both his terms as leader coincide with
those of Democratic US presidents with very different worldviews.
seems to be doing all he can to change that.
His public spat with the
American Administration over red lines on Iran’s drive to nuclear weaponry is
being widely interpreted as an attempt to help his good friend, the Republican
presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, get elected in November.
is: How is this meddling in America’s internal affairs likely to impact on
Israel’s future if, as seems more than likely, a miffed President Barack Obama
is reelected? Obama’s supporters in government and the media have been quick to
point to the president’s impressive record on military and diplomatic aid to
Israel and his explicit public commitment to prevent Iran from producing nuclear
weapons – and to tar Netanyahu as an ingrate who has violated cardinal rules of
diplomacy and basic codes of friendship between allies.
The ferocity of
their criticism was unprecedented. No Israeli prime minister, including
Netanyahu himself, has ever been subjected to such a torrent of indignant fury. “I don’t think I’ve ever, in the 40 years I have been doing this, heard of an
American ally trying to push us into war as blatantly and trying to influence an
American election as blatantly as Bibi Netanyahu, and the Likud party in Israel,
is doing right now. I think it’s absolutely outrageous and disgusting,” Time
magazine’s Joe Klein fumed on MSN BC’s “Morning Joe.”
New Yorker editor
David Remnick commented that it was “hard to overestimate the risks that
Benjamin Netanyahu poses to the future of his own country.” And former New York
Times editor Bill Keller slammed the “crude intervention in our politics,”
warning that if reelected Obama was “unlikely to forget this exercise in
manipulation by an Israeli leader he already has ample reason to
People in Obama’s corner were particularly irked by the fact
that Netanyahu had done nothing to distance himself from a Romney claim that the
president had “thrown Israel under the bus.” They were also incensed at
Netanyahu’s insinuation that Obama cared more about Iran than
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, one of Israel’s staunchest
supporter’s in Congress, fired off an angry letter to Netanyahu: “I am stunned
by the remarks you made this week regarding US support for Israel. Are you
suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not
stand by Israel? Are you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more
in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its
history?” Fielding the flak, Netanyahu aides deny the prime minister is trying
to influence the outcome of the election. But if his sole concern was stopping
the Iranian bomb, why go public on the red lines? If he were not out to
embarrass Obama or use the election run-up to twist the president’s arm, surely
private exchanges with the American leadership would have been more effective?
There is no special need to sound public alarm bells now. Even the most
apocalyptic Israeli estimates put the Iranian bomb at least a year
Then there was the didactic tone of Netanyahu’s language, seemingly
calculated to skewer the president. “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,” he pontificated. His demand for red lines was reminiscent
of an earlier domestic ploy: his insistence on a national consensus on the
Palestinian issue, which paralyzed the Israeli center-left.
But Obama was
unmoved. And the furious backlash from Washington suggests that this time the
prime minister may have seriously overplayed his hand. Even senior Likud
ministers now fear the strategy will boomerang – not only on Netanyahu, but on
the country as a whole. A poll released in mid-September by the Chicago Council
on Global Affairs found that 59 percent of Americans say that the US should not
come to Israel’s aid, if an Israeli strike against Iran triggers a regional war.
If Netanyahu was trying to gain international legitimacy for a strike by showing
up the vacillation of his chief ally, he seems to have achieved the opposite
With so muc h to lose, why is Netanyahu playing this high-risk
game? The question takes on added weight when one considers that on Iran, Obama
seems a much better bet than Romney. He would be a second-term president, more
readily able to act in the national interest; he is more ideologically committed
to nonproliferation of nuclear weapons than any previous American president; he
has promised not to allow Iran to go nuclear and to use force, if necessary, to
prevent it; and, as a measure of his seriousness, his top defense officials
briefed their Israeli counterparts on contingency plans for a
Against that, Romney would be a first-term president, encumbered
by the baggage of two unsuccessful wars started by a Republican predecessor and
needing time to install a new administration. More importantly, he has a more
isolationist view of America’s place in the world and would be loath to spend
small-government dollars on foreign adventures.
No, the reason Netanyahu
has been sticking his neck out for Romney is not Iran but Palestine. He is
deeply concerned that if reelected, Obama will press hard for significant
movement on the Palestinian track. Indeed, he said as much in a recent closed
meeting with Likud hardliners. And if, in the American context, Netanyahu once
acknowledged that he “speaks Republican,” – on the Palestinian issue, Romney
speaks the language of the Likud.
Romney’s recorded assertions at a
Florida fundraiser in May that “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in
establishing peace,” that they are “committed to the destruction and elimination
of Israel,” that a two-state solution would put the border seven miles from Tel
Aviv and allow the Iranians to foment terror from the West Bank, and that “we
have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it, and we kick
the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen
and resolve it,” sounded like he had come straight out of a briefing by
Formally, Netanyahu is committed to the two-state solution,
vide his Bar- Ilan University speech of June 2009. But everything he has done
since shows he doesn’t really believe in it, and that his commitment was made
only to keep Obama and the rest of the international community at bay. He seems
to be acting under the assumption that if Romney is elected, he and the new
president will be able finally to bury the two-state idea. If that happens,
Israel will likely face a new Palestinian uprising. It will also be confronted
with the problem of an imminent Palestinian majority without political rights in
the territory Israel governs.
Romney as president, however, may not go
along with Netanyahu. America is committed to two states for two peoples, and it
was a Republican president, George W Bush, who first made that commitment in his
“vision speech” of June 2002.
Moreover, for wider US interests in the
region, Romney may find it necessary to modify his position on the
The diff erence is that if Obama is reelected he will
almost certainly be more proactive. If Netanyahu buckles under the pressure, and
agrees to significant moves towards a two-state solution, that could be good for
Israel. If, however, he gets into a headon confrontation with Obama, it could be
disastrous. Israel-US relations would suffer, and Israel’s delegitimizers would
have a field day. Obama may also pressure Israel on its presumed nuclear
arsenal. If he wins, this will become evident in the runup to the planned
conference on a nuclearfree Middle East scheduled for Helsinki in
Given the likelihood of a sticky outcome for Netanyahu, some
speculated on the role of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, who
backs both Romney and Netanyahu. Was he somewhere in the background pushing the
prime minister to act against his own interests? Indeed, the wheel could come
full circle, with pressure from Obama on Netanyahu impacting on Israeli domestic
With elections likely any time next year, a reelected Netanyahu
may feel compelled to form a more moderate government.
could even lead to his defeat by the center left – as occurred in 1999, when,
just a few months before, as now, no one thought it possible.
cabinet minister Haim Ramon, ex- Labor and ex-Kadima, one of the architects of
Netanyahu’s defeat in 1999, is working on an attractive center-left alternative,
presumably led by a resurgent Tzipi Livni.
Ironically, if this gathers
momentum, boosted here and there by a second Obama White House, Netanyahu’s
gamble on the American election could end up costing him his job at home.