Barack vs. Bibi: Round 2

Given the high stakes, confirmation of Kerry and Hagel in the US could force Netanyahu to form a coalition with the center parties.

Obama nominates Chuck Hagel for defense secretary 370 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Obama nominates Chuck Hagel for defense secretary 370
(photo credit: Screenshot)
US President Barack Obama has been reelected and barring a major surprise, Benjamin Netanyahu will also win reelection on January 22.
Obama would have preferred the Israeli center-left, but will probably find himself once again having to deal with Netanyahu.
So how will these two leaders, who come from very different backgrounds, who dislike and mistrust each other, and whose relationship over the past four years has been strained, interact in their new terms? The answer depends to a large extent on Obama’s foreign policy priorities, his national security team and on Netanyahu’s regional strategies and new coalition partners.
Their relationship will also be affected by their capacity to learn from mistakes both men made last time round.
After Obama’s victory, commentators in both countries suggested that the president would punish Netanyahu for his alleged support of the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. In two recent tests, Obama showed that “revenge” isn’t exactly his game. He supported the Israeli military retaliation against Hamas in November and indirectly helped to achieve a cease-fire.
He also was among very few world leaders who opposed the Palestinian UN bid for non-state observer status.
Following the Palestinian UN victory, a leading Israeli commentator claimed that Obama had demonstrated support for Israel, not for Netanyahu. He was wrong.
Obama’s decisions in both cases were driven by American strategic interests, not by any special favor to Israel. US interests simply coincided with Israel’s.
Obama’s first term Middle East strategies have completely disintegrated. He will have to formulate new policies to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, confront the disastrous repercussions of the civil war in Syria, deal with the emergence of Islamic dictatorships, like the one in Egypt, and decide whether to embark on a new effort to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Obama is replacing his entire national security team. His key personnel choices signal the directions he wishes to follow in his second term. He has nominated John Kerry as Secretary of State, and despite strong opposition from many circles, may nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to head the Department of Defense. Kerry supports sanctions and negotiations with Iran but opposes military action, and has been critical of Netanyahu’s policies towards settlements and the Palestinians.
Hagel’s nomination is very strange. If the idea is to promote bipartisanship, Hagel is a poor choice, since he antagonized many of his Republican colleagues by criticizing the policies of President George W. Bush.
Moreover, Hagel’s positions on critical issues such as Iran are diametrically opposed to those held by Obama. Hagel believes Iran can’t be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons and has opposed both sanctions and military action.
He also opposed Obama’s war on terrorism including his efforts to persuade the EU to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Hagel has also called for official talks with Hamas. Moreover, while serving in the Senate, Hagel was one of Israel’s most vociferous critics. He also targeted American Jews, casting aspersions of dual loyalty, and the pro-Israel lobby. His confirmation would be disastrous for US policy in the Middle East and for Israel.
The government Netanyahu assembled four years ago was relatively moderate, mainly because the center-left Labor party joined the coalition. Labor’s leader Ehud Barak became defense minister and other prominent Labor leaders served as ministers.
In times of rising tension, Barak played a critical mediating role between Netanyahu and Obama. Netanyahu also appointed moderate members of his Likud party, such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, to ministerial positions.
In the run-up to the current elections, Likud merged with the far-right Yisrael Beytenu, and moderate MKs like Meridor and Eitan were replaced by more extreme candidates like Moshe Feiglin, who represents the radical right within Likud.
Netanyahu could have serious coalition problems, too. Labor has said it won’t join him and the other center-left parties, Hatnua and Yesh Atid, may present conditions that Netanyahu’s other potential coalition partners, the extreme right and the ultra-Orthodox parties, won’t be able to accept. The differences between the present and future Netanyahu-led governments may resemble those between the first and the second Begin governments in 1977 and 1981.
Begin’s first coalition included the centrist Democratic Movement for Change headed by Yigael Yadin, who became deputy prime minister. Begin also appointed two moderate politicians to key positions: Moshe Dayan formerly of Labor as foreign minister and Ezer Weizman as defense minister. This government made the historic peace agreement with Egypt.
The second Begin administration included only rightist and religious parties and two hawkish politicians in key cabinet positions: Ariel Sharon in defense and Yitzhak Shamir in foreign affairs. This government was responsible for the much criticized 1982 war in Lebanon. US-Israel relations were far closer during the first Begin government than during the second.
After the elections, Netanyahu will have to make critical decisions, primarily on Iran and negotiations with the Palestinians.
Given these major challenges, he would prefer a broad national unity coalition with at least one center party. Only this type of coalition could enable adequate collaboration with an American national security team of Obama, Kerry and Hagel. If Netanyahu fails to form a centrist coalition, he will find himself between a rock of US and EU pressure and a hard place of extremists from his own party and among his coalition partners.
Obama will also have to make critical decisions. Despite the failures of the first term, he will have to decide whether to initiate a new effort to restart Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, possibly with European help. Kerry might be interested, but might consider the chances too slim and the price of another failure and confrontation with Netanyahu too high.
Time to stop the Iranian bomb will run out this summer, at the very latest. After making so many commitments to stop Iran and promising to consider all options, including a military strike, America’s standing in the Middle East and in the international community as a whole would be significantly damaged if Iran were to be allowed to go nuclear. All America’s Arab allies would conclude that the US isn’t a reliable ally, and would seek an accommodating relationship with Iran. A nuclear Iran would irreparably blemish Obama’s legacy, and during a second term, legacy is almost all that concerns any president.
The confirmation of both Kerry and Hagel would encourage the Palestinians to persist in their reluctance to negotiate with Israel, and the Iranians to continue their nuclear weapons program. If sanctions and diplomacy fail, the US and Israel will have to choose between a nuclear Iran and military action. Given both Kerry and Hagel’s known opposition to military force, Obama might accept a nuclear Iran.
Then, the challenge for Israel would be whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities without even tacit coordination with the US.
Given the high stakes, Senate confirmation of Kerry and Hagel could force Netanyahu to form a coalition with the center parties and to appoint moderates as his ministers of defense and foreign affairs, able to work closely with Obama and his new national security advisers.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on USIsraeli relations, is Director of the School of Communication and a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.