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Bibi Caught Between Obama and Romney

It is a cardinal rule of foreign policy that it is almost always a mistake to interfere in another country’s elections. When it comes to the United States’ interest in Israel, that is a maxim that has often been observed in the breach. U.S. government attempts to influence Israeli elections are ill-advised and don’t always work, as Bill Clinton learned in 1996 when he did everything but go door to door canvassing voters in Tel Aviv in a vain attempt to stop Benjamin Netanyahu from becoming prime minister of Israel. But any Israeli efforts to signal their preferences in American presidential elections may have unfortunate consequences. That’s why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been at pains throughout the past year to make it clear he wants no part in the 2012 contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney. But however hard Netanyahu has tried to stay out of the fractious debate about which of the two is a better friend to the Jewish state, Romney’s visit to Israel yesterday left little doubt that while officially neutral, there isn’t much daylight between the GOP candidate and Jerusalem.

The upshot of Netanyahu’s meeting with Romney made it clear that his government is much closer to the Republican’s position on how to deal with Iran than Obama’s. Netanyahu’s saying, “Mitt, I couldn’t agree with you more,” about the need to stop Iran came on the same day that he reiterated his belief that the Obama administration’s reliance on sanctions and diplomacy was not working. Combined with Romney’s acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the day’s events might leave some with the impression that Israel has a rooting interest in the U.S. election. That isn’t what Netanyahu wants, as he knows there is a good chance he will be stuck dealing with Obama next year. But there is no way of escaping this dilemma. Because the administration’s positions on Iran, like the stances it took on settlements, the 1967 lines and the status of Jerusalem prior to the president’s election year Jewish charm offensive, are antithetical to Israel’s point of view, it is only natural for observers to conclude that Netanyahu would rather not find out what a second Obama administration will be like.

Netanyahu will be careful in the coming days to avoid any further “agreement” with Romney. And he will warmly greet Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who will be the second major Obama Cabinet member to arrive in Israel in the past couple of weeks. But Panetta, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is there to persuade the Israelis to continue trusting the administration on Iran. Given Netanyahu’s correct assessment of Obama’s foolish reliance on diplomacy and sanctions (which the president has undermined with the granting of exemptions to China and India to continue buying Iranian oil), that is impossible.

Indeed, the problem for Netanyahu is that while he may privately believe that a President Romney may have a far better grasp of the realities of the Iranian nuclear threat, as David Horowitz wrote yesterday in the Times of Israel, by January it may be too late for him to make a difference. If by next year, Iran’s nuclear progress is such that its program will have already reached a point of immunity where no amount of Israeli or American air strikes will be able to stop them, then it won’t matter who wins the U.S. presidential election.

What was on display yesterday is not so much a warm friendship between Netanyahu and Romney as the complete disconnect between Israel and Obama. So long as the United States is pursuing a diplomatic process with Iran, it is difficult to imagine an Israeli strike on Iran. The administration has little sense of urgency about the issue and it is worry about that, rather than any great affection for Romney that is motivating Netanyahu these days.

Netanyahu must, as much as he can, stay out of American politics. Anything that could be interpreted as an endorsement of Romney would be rightly viewed as damaging to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But the one thing Romney’s visit does do is give Netanyahu a bit of leverage as he seeks to convince the Americans to face up to the failure of their Iran strategy.

Yet as difficult as Netanyahu’s position may be, Obama must be equally careful. As much as he has made his dislike for the Israeli leader even less of a secret than Netanyahu’s views of the president, the difference is that while Obama is in the fight of his life to hold onto his office this year, Netanyahu is in a commanding position in Israeli politics and will likely hold onto power there throughout the next U.S. presidential term. Netanyahu has good reason to fear what a second Obama administration will have in store for his country. But the president is aware that Netanyahu is just as capable of making his life miserable via an Iran attack. At least until November, the Israeli may be holding more cards in his hand than the American president.