To lose favor in Washington was once political poison for Israeli prime ministers. Twice during the 1990s, Israelis voted out leaders who quarreled with the U.S. president; the second one was Benjamin Netanyahu. So one of the more remarkable aspects of Israel’s current election campaign, which ends at the polls on Tuesday, is that Netanyahu hasn’t been afraid to play up his notoriously bad relations with President Barack Obama.
Last week Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Obama had been privately repeating the observation that Netanyahu’s Israel “doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Rightly or wrongly, Israelis judged that to be a White House leak intended to damage the prime minister’s electoral chances. Rather than flinch, however, Netanyahu pushed right back, boasting that he had “rebuffed the pressure” that would have had Israel “curb our pressure against Iran” and withdraw to its 1967 borders.
Evidently, Netanyahu calculates that being seen to stand up to this U.S. president is good politics in Israel — and he may be right. A recent poll showed that half of Israelis believes the prime minister should pursue his policies even if they lead to conflict with the United States. The big story of the campaign has been the surge of far-right parties that reject not only Obama’s view of Israel but also the two-state solution that has been U.S. policy for more than a decade.
This disturbing trend is partly the result of Obama’s poor handling of Israel, which he has not visited and where he is widely regarded as supportive of the nation’s defense but unsympathetic to its psyche. If the White House were trying to undercut Netanyahu, it would be guilty of the same poor judgment the Israeli leader showed in tilting toward Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential race. No scenario contemplated by political analysts foresees anyone other than Mr. Netanyahu emerging as prime minister from the bargaining that will follow Tuesday’s election.
The question is whether the incumbent will choose, or perhaps be obliged by the electoral math, to include parties from the center and left in his coalition. If he does not, Netanyahu could find himself isolated both within his own government and internationally: He is one of only two of the top 30 candidates from his own Likud Party to endorse Palestinian statehood.
For that reason, the wise U.S. policy would be to concede, and maybe even welcome, Netanyahu’s re-election while quietly urging him to construct a centrist government. In the coming months, Israel and the United States will likely have an urgent need to communicate clearly and cooperate closely on the threat of Iran’s nuclear program; and they must try to preserve the prospect of Palestinian statehood. Obama and Netanyahu may be political foils, but as each begins a new term their deeper interest lies in a reset of their relationship.
The Washington Post (Jan. 22)