Analysis: Pushing reset in Netanyahu-Obama ties

Both leaders need to learn to live with each other.

President Barack Obama victory speech 370 (photo credit: Screenshot)
President Barack Obama victory speech 370
(photo credit: Screenshot)
SAN FRANCISCO – When US President Barack Obama wakes up Thursday morning and starts thinking about his second term and the legacy he realistically hopes to leave, it is doubtful securing a comprehensive Middle East peace will be high on his list.
Not because he does not want to go down as the US president to have secured that elusive goal, but rather because of a realization that it is beyond his grasp.
That, at least, will have to be Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s wish when he himself wakes up on Thursday.
And it will likely be a wish that will be granted.
A lot has changed in the four years since Obama, soon after his inauguration in 2009, appointed George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy and set Palestinian- Israeli peace as his administration’s top Middle East priority.
First of all, today’s Middle East looks nothing like it did then.
With Syria imploding, Egypt going through a deep change, Iran continuing its relentless march toward nuclear arms and political Islam on the rise throughout the region, reaching a Palestinian-Israeli agreement does not hold the same urgency right now. Obama has a lot of other issues in the region that are more pressing.
And that is something Netanyahu has to be thankful for.
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Most acknowledge that the Obama-Netanyahu relationship needs a reset. Not the US-Israeli relationship, but rather the Obama-Netanyahu one. And that is not an insignificant difference.
US-Israel ties are wide and broad, and are not at the whim of any one individual, even a president returning for his second term.
When it comes to Israel, as Obama found out during his first two years in office, there are limits to how far he can push the envelope. This became apparent in the spring and summer of 2010, after the disastrous visit by Vice President Joe Biden and Israel’s announcement of new building in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem. At that point, Israeli-US ties hit a nadir.
At a certain point, when Democratic New York Sen. Charles Schumer went on the radio criticizing Obama on Israel, the US president realized he was pushing too hard and too fast, and his tone changed dramatically. This is when it became clear to him that there were limits and restraints governing how much he could alter the US-Israel relationship.
The doom-and-gloomers argue, however, that now that Obama does not have to run for reelection, he will have to worry less about political allies like Schumer, and can “take off the gloves.”
But can he? Obama did not seek reelection so he could just oversee the government. He has a domestic, economic agenda that he wants to push. Indeed, in his lofty victory speech Tuesday night in Chicago, he made almost no mention of foreign affairs, concentrating instead on domestic issues.
And for Obama to successfully push his domestic agenda and thereby carve out a legacy for himself, he is still going to need political allies, even during a second term.
Even if he wanted to do so, and few think he actually does, he would not be able to ignore the massive support for Israel that remains in Congress.
Doing so could make it difficult for him to push forward his domestic priorities, at a time when the American public is clamoring for a break in Washington’s gridlock and when he will need to somehow win cooperation from the Republican- led House.
Although Obama cannot seek reelection, Congress will be facing the electorate in two short years. And while the president may no longer have to consider Jewish voters or donors, those in his party seeking reelection will need to do so, and are sure to make their voices heard.
In other words, do not expect any dramatic changes to the administration’s policies toward Israel now that Obama has won a second term. What once was is what now will be, for better and for worse.
Also, expect voices to be raised saying that now is the natural time to push the reset button in the rocky ties between Netanyahu and Obama.
And, indeed, that reset may be pushed. But not immediately.
Israel is now 76 days away from its own elections, elections the Obama administration would just as clearly like to see Netanyahu lose – as Netanyahu would rather have liked to see Republican candidate Mitt Romney win on Tuesday night.
The reset will come when both leaders realize that they have common interests to pursue and will have to live with each other for another four years.
Netanyahu now realizes he will have to live with Obama for four more years. The same cannot be said in reverse, at least not yet, not until our elections on January 22. That reset, if Netanyahu wins, will only begin on January 23.