There’s little doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wasn’t celebrating President Obama’s re-election, but he has more important things on his mind today than commiserating with his old Boston colleague Mitt Romney. Netanyahu’s priority is his own re-election campaign. But with Obama now in place for the next four years, speculation centers on whether that makes it less likely that the prime minister can skate to an easy victory in the Israeli balloting scheduled for the day after Obama takes the oath of office again in January.
Most Israelis understand that among any prime minister’s most important tasks is maintaining close relations with their country’s only ally, the United States. Many of Netanyahu’s foes, including American Jewish left-wingers, have spent the last four years hoping that the clashes between Obama and the prime minister would sooner or later undermine his grip on power and either topple his government or sink him at the next election. Yet despite years of often non-stop fights picked with him by the Americans, Netanyahu has prospered. The question now is whether Obama’s victory changes the equation enough to actually place Netanyahu in political jeopardy. But while the certain prospect of four more years of clashes between the two leaders ought to trouble both Israelis and Americans, Netanyahu probably hasn’t too much to worry about.
If Obama were to signal his hope that somebody other than Netanyahu would win in January it wouldn’t be all that unusual. Israelis and Americans have been interfering in each other’s elections for decades with the latter generally having a lot more impact on the opinions of Israeli voters than the reverse. The disfavor with which the administration of the first President Bush regarded Yitzhak Shamir was thought to have materially contributed to the Likud prime minister’s defeat in 1992. Seven years later, Netanyahu’s first stay in the prime minister’s residence was cut short in no small measure because of President Clinton’s obvious disdain for him.
Netanyahu was widely criticized at home this fall after publicizing Obama’s refusal to meet him in New York during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly to discuss setting “red lines” about diplomacy with Iran. The prime minister’s comments about the time were seen as an effort to undermine Obama during his own re-election campaign, and many Israelis were uncomfortable with the intervention as well as the prospect of their prime minister being seen as trying to pressure the United States into conflict with Iran.
But there are two problems with the idea that Obama’s undisguised animosity for Netanyahu will have a major impact on the Israeli election.
The first is that although Netanyahu’s political position looks a lot less secure than it did only a couple of months ago, there is still no plausible alternative to him in the field.
Netanyahu would probably have been better off going to early elections last spring rather than attempting to make a super coalition with Kadima work. That effort was doomed by Kadima’s futile attempt to revive its fortunes at Likud’s expense. Had the prime minister passed on that experiment, elections would have probably already been held and he would be now safely re-elected with Obama having nothing to say about it.
I also agree with those who argue that Netanyahu’s recent decision to merge the Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party may yield his party less seats than the current combined total of the two groups. Netanyahu’s determination to consolidate the right behind his banner will allow his opponents to portray him as being in the pocket of extremist forces rather than as the leader of the center-right coalition. Yair Lapid’s new party may benefit from this realignment, in which it can gain more votes in the center.
But those expecting a new super party of centrists and various left-wingers to take on Netanyahu, with some failed politician like Ehud Olmert or Tzipi Livni at the helm, are probably dreaming. None of those likely to lead opposing parties are seen as even remotely having a chance to defeat Likud. Moreover, even if the Likud/Lieberman alignment loses seats, polls show the current coalition parties from the nationalist and the religious camps still easily winning a majority in the next Knesset.
Nothing Obama can say or do will make any of the alternatives to Netanyahu a realistic alternative and the president probably understands he would be foolish to try.
Second, and even more important, for all of the fear that Israelis have of the idea of there being daylight between their country and the U.S., they dislike and distrust Obama far more than they worry about Netanyahu. Every spat with Netanyahu strengthened the Israeli because most of the fights Obama picked were on issues on which the prime minister was able to defend the Israeli consensus, such as Jerusalem. Were he to start sending signals that he wants Netanyahu defeated, most Israelis would rightly interpret that as a prelude to more pressure on their country to give on such issues and that would, as it has throughout the last four years, strengthen rather than weaken Netanyahu.
The prime minister faces a tougher fight now than he might have had if the elections had come sooner or it Romney had won the American election. But Netanyahu remains a prohibitive favorite to win his own new four-year lease on power. The prospect of four more years of Obama-Netanyahu spats is disturbing, especially if Obama seeks to compromise on a nuclear Iran or hasn’t learned his lesson about the Palestinians’ disinterest in peace. But it isn’t likely that there is anything Barack Obama can do to prevent a Netanyahu win in January.