One of the running jokes about Barack Obama’s practice of repenting for past American meddling in other countries’ affairs has been that Obama came to office opposing regime change everywhere but Israel. This was a case of it being funny (only) because it was true. Obama has continued to ally with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s electoral opponents, and Israeli voters, according to a poll released today, don’t think he’s being all that subtle about it.
The Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli public opinion continues to show that Israelis are proficient observers of the American political scene, especially with regard to President Obama:
Sixty-two percent of respondents said the Obama administration is interfering, 31% said it is not interfering, and 8% did not know.
A majority of respondents, 56%, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is correct in principle in his desire to address Congress on the Iranian nuclear threat, while 36% said he is not right, and 8% had no opinion.
Nevertheless, only 41% said that the prime minister should actually deliver the address, while 36% said he should not go to Washington at all, 17% said he should go, but speak only at the AIPAC policy conference, and 6% did not know.
As Jonathan Tobin has been pointing out, Netanyahu did nothing wrong by accepting the American invitation to address Congress and he is also correct in the intent and content of his speech, but once the Obama White House turned it into a partisan issue and even, embarrassingly, injected race into the discussion, Netanyahu’s better play was to cancel or postpone the speech. Israeli voters seem to generally agree.
As for the question of Obama’s interference, it’s actually surprising that only 62 percent thought so. The State Department is funding a group bankrolling an anti-Netanyahu campaign, and a former Obama campaign official is playing a leading role in the American left’s “Anyone but Bibi” efforts.
Additionally, Obama himself has telegraphed his intentions. Aaron David Miller acknowledges this over at Foreign Policy, but the headline and subheadline (probably added by an editor, not Miller) don’t get the story quite right. The column is titled “Obama Is Pursuing Regime Change in Israel,” which mostly correct; it would be right on target to say “Obama Is Still Pursuing Regime Change in Israel.” He has been doing so since the beginning of the first term of Netanyahu’s current premiership.
But the subheadline works too hard to water down Obama’s meddling: “Angered by Netanyahu’s invitation to address Congress, the White House is now quietly working to unsettle the prime minister before elections in Israel.” Again, this could be fixed with a minor word substitution. It could say “Angered by Netanyahu’s very existence…” since Netanyahu’s recent acceptance of his American invitation to Congress obviously had nothing to do with Obama’s two-term project of ousting Bibi.
In fact, the only thing this speech did was give Obama and his defenders in the media a pretext. As CNN reported earlier this week, one of the nuggets in David Axelrod’s memoir is that Obama planned to go “Bulworth” in his second term by doing things that might be unpopular but would at least be more honest. And stepping up his attacks on Netanyahu was part of the list.
Here’s how the president saw his post-election strategy:
These are things “I’ll want to work on in my second term,” the president told his top staffers, as one of them referenced the Warren Beatty movie Bulworth, in which a candidate goes on a reckless spree of truth-telling. “Some of them may make you guys nervous. But Axe keeps saying I should be ‘authentic.’ So maybe I should go out there and just let it rip.”
So what does it mean for Obama to be “authentic?” Here’s CNN:
In addition to revealing his actual position in favor of legal same-sex marriages, and working on immigration reform and to combat climate change, the president singled out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Axelrod wrote. Specifically, he wanted to be tougher on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just to put this in perspective, Obama had been working to collapse Netanyahu’s government almost immediately. What Obama was saying was that trying to collapse the duly elected Israeli government was his way of pulling punches, of not being tough enough on Netanyahu. It’s easy to see why Obama thought this might make some of his advisors nervous.
But it’s also not much of a revelation, is it? And the irony is that if Obama is successful and Isaac Herzog’s Labor wins the next election, the president and the Western media will be forced to reckon with their characterization of Israeli politics but without the benefit of having a right-of-center leader to scapegoat. The press loves to talk about Netanyahu’s supposed intransigence on the peace process by saying that his “right-wing” coalition partners wouldn’t stand for certain concessions.
If people think Bibi is hostage to his coalition partners, they would be absolutely terrified by the political reality that would face Herzog. In order to govern, he needs not only to win the election but to put together a coalition. To even have a chance, he’d have to construct a rickety coalition dependent on center-right parties. And he’d have almost no margin for error.
Which is to say that Obama’s “Bulworth” strategy against Israel is not just morally bankrupt and ill advised. It also risks further eroding Israelis’ already-low trust in Obama for what would probably be negligible gain. Obama’s strategists might have pointed that out, though it’s unlikely the president would have listened.