As I noted in parts one and two of this post, there are good reasons to believe that tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to simmer during their respective terms. The disconnect between the president’s view of the region and the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Israelis about the future of the peace process has created a gap between the two countries that continues to cause trouble. The fact that the two men don’t like each other also doesn’t help. But as I wrote, the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace on the one hand and the determination of the Iranians to push toward their goal of a nuclear weapon may render the disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem moot.
But even if we don’t assume, as I think we should, that Israel’s enemies will continue to force the United States and Israel into the same corner whether the president likes it or not, there is another important factor that will also put a limit on how far any quarrel can go: the overwhelming support for Israel among the American people. As much as some in the administration and its cheerleaders on the left may believe that the “Jewish lobby,” as President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense put it, has too much influence, the fact remains that the U.S.-Israel alliance remains a consensus issue in this country. As we have seen over the past two years, no president, not even one as personally popular as Barack Obama, can afford to ignore it or blow it up.
It may be that a re-elected President Obama is still spoiling to get even with Netanyahu after his humiliation in May 2011 when the Israeli demonstrated the consequences of a picking a fight with a popular ally. At that time, Obama ambushed a visiting Netanyahu with a speech demanding the Israeli accept the 1967 lines as a starting point in future peace negotiations. Netanyahu didn’t just reject the U.S. diktat, but the ovation that he received when he addressed Congress a few days later showed that both Democrats and Republicans were united in backing Israel’s position.
That was the last major fight picked with Israel by Obama over the peace process since in the following months he launched a Jewish charm offensive with an eye on the 2012 presidential election. As I noted earlier, a major factor behind a decision not to try again may be the refusal of the Palestinians to take advantage of the president’s opening. But the president also understood that a posture of hostility toward Israel was political poison and not just with American Jews whose votes he assumed would remain in the Democratic column.
The problem with the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby thesis is not just that it is rooted in an anti-Semitic mindset that sees the Jews as manipulating the United States to do things that are against its interests. Rather, the real problem with it is that it fails to take into account the fact that the pro-Israel consensus cuts across virtually all demographic and political lines in this country.
As I wrote in the July 2011 issue of COMMENTARY in the aftermath of the worst Obama-Netanyahu confrontation, the alliance between the two countries is not only politically popular but is now so integrated into the infrastructure of U.S. defense and foreign policy as to be virtually indestructible. If a president who is as ambivalent about Israel and as determined to create daylight between the two countries as Obama has proved to be understood that he could not afford to downgrade that alliance, that point has been proven.
It is true that as a result of his re-election, the president does not have to fear the voters’ wrath on this or any issue. But the idea that he has carte blanche to do as he likes to Israel is a myth. The bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress will always act as a check on any impulse to take revenge on Netanyahu. The process by which defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has been forced to reverse all of his previous stands on Iran and Israel and to disavow his “Jewish lobby” comments is reminder that a second Obama administration cannot undo the laws of political gravity. Most Americans will regard Netanyahu’s re-election next week as an argument against any U.S. pressure to force Israel to do what its voters have rejected.
To say all that is not to discount the very real possibility that tension between the two governments is probably a given to some degree as long as these two men are in power. But a president with a limited amount of political capital and only two years in which he can use it would be a fool to expend his scarce resources on another losing fight with Netanyahu.
Four more years of this oddly mismatched tandem will make for a rocky ride for friends of Israel. But the alliance is stronger than even Barack Obama’s dislike for Netanyahu. As nasty as this relationship may be, the fallout in Washington from the Israeli’s easy re-election may not be as bad as you might think.