As US President Barack Obama prepares to enter his second term, Israeli experts predict that there will be little change in relations between the two countries going forward.
“I think ultimately it is going to be similar because the interests are stronger than personal liking or not liking,” Prof. Shmuel Sandler, of the BESA Center at Bar Ilan University, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
“There is a solid sharing of interests in Israel and the United States, so this will dictate the relationship.”
While the course of bilateral relations will somewhat depend on who assumes the role of prime minister in January, for the most part, fundamental changes in the relationship between the two countries are unlikely to occur, agreed Prof. Peter Medding, of Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.
Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu each talk about their “unshakeable commitment” to one another – a commitment that Medding said they intend to keep – and have developed long-term cooperation among their forces and support for missile systems, he explained.
“Both countries on record for a long time have been emphasizing the mutuality of [their] shared values,” Medding said.
Although in the future, the bilateral relationship is likely to remain as is, Sandler said he could identify two potentially problematic areas between the two nations. The first, he explained, is Obama’s “insistence against [nuclear] proliferation” across the globe as part of his struggle against Iran. In promoting this view, it is possible that Obama may once again attempt to pressure Israel into signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as he did earlier in his term, according to Sandler.
“He might try to somehow make some gesture so it will be easier to get Iran out of the nuclear business,” he said.
Although Medding agreed that the Iranian situation could theoretically pose an issue, he said that over the past few months or even year Israel and the US seem to have moved closer together on the subject.
“Obama is on record as saying Iran will not have nuclear weapons period – which is the Israeli position,” Medding said. “They might differ on how you get to that point and when you get to that point and what means should be used.”
Obama may technically want as many countries as possible to sign the NPT, but under current conditions, it is no longer a viable issue, according to Medding.
“When push comes to shove nobody has really pushed Israel into actually signing it,” he said.
The second subject that could be cause for conflict is the Palestinian question, Sandler explained. In all likelihood, however, Obama will probably be “smarter” this time and “understand that the Palestinian is a hard customer,” he said.
Tensions have already cooled dramatically over the Palestinian question, as Obama has being doing much less in the final quarter of his first term to try to persuade Israel one way or another, Medding added.
At the onset of Obama’s presidency, settlement freezes and getting both sides to the table were key issues, but now these subjects “have moved somewhere off to the side,” he explained.
“If the parties want, they can and will negotiate,” Medding said. “Since 1967 the US has been fairly consistent on the policy.”
While he cannot be sure that the US will remain consistent on this position, Medding said that if the Israelis and Palestinians decided they want to move forward with talks, then the US will help facilitate these discussions in every way possible.
“The question is can the US capitalize as it were if there is not sufficient willingness on the part of both parties,” he said. “The US’s problem is that it has never been able to coerce Israel to do what it doesn’t want to do.”
Any so-called non-chemistry between Netanyahu and Obama will not influence the bilateral relationship in any way, as the “fundamental interests of the country” are much more significant than “a good personal relationship,” according to Medding. No matter who the prime minister is come January, however, Medding said he believes a leader who is committed to restarting the peace process and who succeeds in doing so will enjoy quite positive support from the US.
Yet, he stressed, an unwillingness to recommence the peace process will not cause the US to stop talking to Israel or tell the country to “go stand in the corner,” he said.
The last time the US essentially pushed Israel into accepting something that it was not ready to accept led to the rise of Hamas gaining power in the Gaza Strip, something that neither America nor Israel desired, Medding noted.
“The capacity of the US to bring that democracy to other countries has always been questionable, and certainly has not proved itself,” he said.
If Obama were to take too rough a stance at the moment against Israel, Sandler said it could end up being counterproductive and actually “strengthen Netanyahu.”
“People would say, ‘Hey, he will intervene in our business,’” he added.
As Obama enters his second term, first and foremost Sandler said he expects him to focus on internal issues – problems of the American economy, for example, and not international matters – which he noted was apparent in his acceptance speech on Tuesday night.
“The president in the second term is always busy with his legacy,” Sandler said. “Usually it starts with economics and ends with foreign affairs.”
“Presidents want to leave their imprint,” he added.