President Obama’s frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen by many as a missed opportunity for Obama. Israeli voters tend to punish leaders who can’t get along with the American president, and thus prime ministers are usually willing to work pretty hard to stay on the president’s good side. But Israelis across the ideological spectrum thought Obama’s treatment of Netanyahu was disrespectful, and they blamed the president more than they blamed Netanyahu for the state of affairs.
That gave Netanyahu a certain degree of leverage in his relationship with Obama that Netanyahu didn’t have during his first stint as premier when Bill Clinton was president. But both the recent Israeli and American elections tipped the scales somewhat back in Obama’s direction. Obama was re-elected and now doesn’t have to face the voters again, and Netanyahu won far fewer seats in the January Knesset elections than he had expected, and sits mired in negotiations to form a coalition in which his rivals are setting the agenda. Yet as a new poll from the Hill shows, Obama shouldn’t be enjoying the spectacle too much–he has something to lose as well:
According to the latest Hill Poll, just 13 percent of respondents say the president’s policy toward Israel is too supportive. A full 39 percent said Obama is not supportive enough, the highest percentage The Hill Poll has seen….
Meanwhile, in the most recent survey for The Hill, a slightly larger percentage of likely voters say Obama is generally anti-Israel than say he is pro-Israel, 30 percent to 28 percent. The percentage of voters who label Obama as pro-Israel is up slightly from a September 2011 survey for The Hill, as is the number of voters who say Obama is anti-Israel.
Obama is pressuring Netanyahu to form a coalition now by saying he’ll cancel his upcoming trip to Israel–for which he plans to leave on March 19–if there’s no deal for a new government in place by then. And as Jonathan pointed out, the president is actually doing Netanyahu a favor. Netanyahu is balking at the demands of his would-be coalition partners Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, whose parties came in second and fourth, respectively, in the January elections. Lapid and Bennett say they come as a pair, and don’t want to share a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. That’s because they are holding firm on a demand that the next government force Haredim into the military draft system to share the burden of defending the country. Netanyahu usually relies on the Orthodox to form his governing coalitions (Shas usually gets about 10 seats in each election) and doesn’t want to lose their political support.
But accepting the Lapid-Bennett conditions would be the best of both worlds for Netanyahu: he’d get a popular domestic achievement under his belt but could honestly tell the Haredim he had no choice. Netanyahu’s refusal to agree to the deal would then seem to be a miscalculation, especially if he’s seen as responsible for the cancellation of Obama’s first trip to Israel.
But the Hill poll tells Obama that he needs the trip almost as much as Netanyahu does. His shoddy treatment of Netanyahu during his first term and his opposition to tougher Iran sanctions (passed only after Democrats publicly shamed the White House) have drained the administration of credibility. So sending Vice President Joe Biden to this week’s AIPAC conference to talk tough on Iran isn’t quite enough–especially after nominating Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon.
Obama isn’t simply playing hardball, however. It’s hard to imagine he’d take the time to make the trip with no Israeli government in place. And as Politico reports, it can’t be a last-minute decision:
Given the need to move Secret Service personnel, communications equipment and advance staff well before a presidential visit, the White House may need to make a decision on scrubbing the trip even before Netanyahu’s March 16 deadline.
This would be a self-inflicted wound for Netanyahu, since the writing is on the wall in terms of the coalition agreement that will eventually be signed. But it also probably makes Obama a bit nervous as well, since he’s been criticized for not visiting Israel and doesn’t want the headlines associated with scheduling a trip and then cancelling it, especially in the wake of another drop in his poll numbers. If that happens, Netanyahu loses too–he is unlikely to be given the benefit of the doubt from the Israeli public this time around.