Analysis: Where is Obama when Netanyahu needs him most?

It is early in the election season, but if Netanyahu statements are the opening salvo of a campaign of fear, they are likely to fall flat.

US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Where is Barak Obama when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs him the most?
If only the US recycled politicians Israeli style, right about now one might find Netanyahu secretly funding and orchestrating Obama’s comeback campaign to regain the White House just so he can have a nemesis to combat.
That’s how badly the premier, who is battling for his political future, needs a bogeyman to justify his tried and true election tactic of fearmongering among right-wing voters when it comes to West Bank settlements.
In fact, fearmongering is pretty much Netanyahu’s go-to option when seeking support for, well, almost anything.
It’s a straightforward strategy, given that the country’s enemies and global threats are likely to pop up during the campaign like jack-in-the-box choruses. Netanyahu will be presented with a multitude of moments, during which he can underscore his role as the country’s savior on a host of issues, from Iran to economic woes.
Lest one think this is an exaggeration, one need only look to Netanyahu’s statements this morning to settler leaders, who should be his adoring fans.
Here he is, the right-wing leader of a right-wing government, on the second day of the campaign. This was his moment to state his achievements and promise them the Sun and the Moon, so that everyone could ride off into a bright future together.
But no, Netanyahu issued a warning instead. If the settler leaders dislike his record to date, his failure to halt terrorist attacks, apply sovereignty, authorize all the outposts or build in E1, they should realize that it could be much worse.
It’s not exactly a slogan that wins minds and hearts.
Imagine what would happen if the Left staged an electoral revolution and seized power: Netanyahu explained that then, “The settlements will be in grave danger.”
But which left-wing government is it, exactly, that is going to destroy all the settlements? In reality, there are only two parties who could lead it: Meretz or the Joint List, which hold to a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines, and one doesn’t needed polling data to know that they are unlikely to lead the government.
The battle for the centrist-right voter is so tight, that even Labor Party head Avi Gabbay, who is supposed to be the leader of the Left, has in the past said he does not plan to evacuate settlements.
So if the Left is not a strong enough foe to bolster Netanyahu’s savior image, then who is?
US President Donald Trump, with whom he has held a diplomatic bromance for almost two years? Trump routinely tweets angry statements about diplomats and politicians, but for Netanyahu, he has only praise.
The US president has also not positioned himself as an enemy of the settlement movement. He has spoken of the need for restrained settlement construction, but has never defined it. His administration has not held that settlements are a stumbling block to the peace process.
Worse, for the last seven months, the Trump administration has had this to say in response to queries about settlement construction: “The Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president’s concerns into consideration,” adding that “The United States welcomes this.”
It’s a statement that sounds almost as if Israeli approvals and advancements of settler housing -- on the scale of 2,000 units at a time -- fell into Trump’s understanding of restraint. It’s an idea that was unheard of during the Obama era.
But that didn’t stop Netanyahu on Wednesday from attempting to portray the Trump administration, with its right-wing Christian base, as menacing on the matter, explaining that he has had to work hard against the US to advance the settlements.
It was a tact that was much easier for Netanyahu to take under Obama, who had a no-tolerance policy toward the settlements. In retrospect, the former president was almost a tailor-made diplomatic foe for Netanyahu. Any steps that the prime minister took in support of the settlements made him look like he was not America’s lackey.
In a universe where everything was forbidden, it didn’t take much for Netanyahu, the fearless champion of the Israeli right, to seem heroic for managing to advance a fair amount of building during Obama’s second term.
Obama was also a politician who played by well-known diplomatic rules; there was an acceptable limit to how angry he was likely to get with Israel over Netanyahu’s behavior. Even Obama’s failure to veto the UN Security Council settlement resolution in 2016 did not stretch those parameters. In short, Obama was a safe foe. Antagonizing him was like Netanyahu walking a tightrope with a safety net right underneath.
The tight Israeli ties with the Trump administration are indeed a credit to Netanyahu’s diplomatic charm, and they are among his strong credentials for another term.
But his hesitancy to cross Trump by dramatically changing the status quo in Judea and Samaria will make it hard for him to argue that he and he alone, can save the settlements should Trump turn his wrath on them.
If the future is like the past, than one can almost hear Netanyahu explain to settler leaders that he cannot advance their agenda because he would risk losing US support for needed military action on Israel’s borders.
It is early in the election season, but if Netanyahu's statements are the opening salvo of a campaign of fear, they are likely to fall flat.
After nine years of waiting, the pro-settlement camp is more afraid of the status quo than left-wing Israelis or a US administration. The leader likely to get their vote is one who is willing to take real risks to cement their eternal future.