This time President Obama didn’t keep Prime Minister Netanyahu waiting. The administration kept the Israeli leader waiting for days before the president made a begrudging congratulatory call after Netanyahu’s decisive election victory in March. But the day after Netanyahu finally pulled together a razor-thin 61-vote coalition to official take office for his fourth term in office, the White House issued a prompt, if businesslike statement congratulating him. But unlike the election which disappointed the administration’s hopes for a Netanyahu defeat, it’s likely that Obama isn’t entirely displeased by the fact that the prime minister was forced to accept a narrow right-wing government rather than the broader coalition he sought. Just as in 2009, when the president hoped for Netanyahu’s government to quickly fall, Washington is hoping that their Israeli nemesis will soon be out of power. As I wrote yesterday, that may not happen. More important, the question now is if the administration will have learned its lessons from six years of failed attempts to undermine Netanyahu. If instead of backing off they try again to topple him, all that will be accomplished is strengthening the prime minister.
In the aftermath of the Israeli election and the agreement on a framework nuclear deal with Iran that Netanyahu opposed, the administration has sent signals about wanting to patch over its differences with Israel. The latest Jewish charm offensive is being led by Vice President Biden rather than Obama and may well succeed in helping to defuse Jewish opposition to the Iran deal. Most American Jewish organizations and their leaders are too timorous to launch a tough campaign to stop Obama’s appeasement of Iran. But the Israeli government isn’t fooled. Instead rightly listening more closely to the thinly veiled threats emanating from senior administration figures about isolating Israel at the United Nations in the next year. That almost certainly won’t happen until the Iran deal is safely signed this summer and then ratified one way or another via a Congressional vote mandated by the toothless compromise passed today by the Senate.
Netanyahu, who has also been informed he won’t be allowed into Obama’s presence until the nuclear deal is finished, realizes that although the administration is concentrating on getting its way on Iran, his turn will soon come. Given the inherent weakness of his coalition, it’s likely the administration views the right-wing cast of the new coalition as an invitation to pressure on the prime minister.
Netanyahu understands that yet another round of futile peace talks with the Palestinians present no real danger to Israel. That’s because, as they have repeatedly demonstrated over the past 15 years, neither the “moderates” of Fatah running the Palestinian Authority nor the extremists of Hamas ruling Gaza will ever sign a peace deal with Israel. But if Netanyahu bends to American demands for talks or gestures aimed at enticing the Palestinians back to the table, some in his coalition, particularly the Jewish Home party, will bolt. That could force new elections if the Zionist Union opposition sticks to its refusal to accept Netanyahu’s standing invitation to join the government. If Netanyahu refuses to offend his right-wing allies and doesn’t budge, then Obama can lower the boom on the Israelis at the UN, leading to a crisis that might also oust the prime minister. Or so the administration may think.
It looks like a foolproof plan for Obama to finally get rid of a head of government that he has seen as a thorn in his side for his entire term of office. But just as past attempts to topple Netanyahu failed, so, too, may this one and for the same reason.
Every previous fight picked with Israel by the administration has backfired. The reason for that is Obama has always staked out ground that enabled Netanyahu to rally the support of Israeli public opinion, whether it was defending the unity of Jerusalem or forcing the Jewish state back to the 1967 lines. No matter what provocation Washington puts forward for a decision to abandon Israel at the UN, it will seen by seen by most Israelis as a craven betrayal by their sole superpower ally. Though some will blame Netanyahu for worsening the relationship with the U.S., it’s likely that such a turn of affairs will be blamed more on Obama’s animus for the Jewish state than on the prickly prime minister’s lack of tact.
Moreover, provoking a crisis in the U.S.-Israel relationship might make it easier for Netanyahu to go back to the electorate with confidence in another victory. It could also place pressure on Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to accept Netanyahu’s offer of the post of foreign minister. Despite Herzog’s rhetoric about support for the peace process, that won’t bring an agreement with the Palestinians any closer. Heightened tension between the U.S. and Israel will only goad the PA to be even more obdurate about refusing to make peace on terms that won’t guarantee the destruction of the Jewish state.
Obama’s only hope of outlasting the prime minister in office is to leave Israel alone and let the internal tensions of coalition politics undermine Netanyahu. Yet after more than six years of thirsting for his downfall, it’s not likely that the president can resist the temptation to try and knock him off. The one thing such a course of action will guarantee is Netanyahu’s job security. So long as the U.S. is applying unfair pressure on Israel, the prime minister will always be able to count on keeping his majority in the Knesset and a grip on the support of the public. That’s a lesson Obama has yet to learn.