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Obama's New Israeli Audience

As head of the party with the most Knesset seats (31) coming out of yesterday's Israeli election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will most likely get to lead the next Israeli government, too. But...

While US. President Barack Obama may be starting his own new term with a Congress no more cooperative than its predecessor, over in Israel he's going to find a few more friends than he did in the outgoing Knesset.

All the right-wing parties together -- including Netanyahu's Likud and the politically promiscuous religious parties -- have a combined total of probably 60 seats, and the center and left-wing parties balance that perfectly within the 120 seat Knesset. This means Netanyahu needs to be more modest in his right-wing policies, especially if he pulls in the new number-two Knesset party, Yesh Atid (There's a Future), which is more liberal and pragmatic, and explicitly rejects the agenda of the religious parties.

The Knesset's new right-left balance also means that President Obama can push Israel a bit harder on the Palestinian issue without having to be reminded that Israelis are disillusioned with their situation and are increasingly leaning to the right and away from reconciliation. Israelis have started to seing back to the center, and the splinters of Israel's left-wing bloc comprise 29 seats, along with another 12 seats for the leftist but traditionally shunned Arab parties.

This election did not produce any remarkable rallying for peace with the Palestinians, but it's pretty clear the Likud lost some votes as a reaction against Netanyahu's tone-deafness to Palestinians and the Arab world, and to the West, over expanding settlements and investing Israel's political capital in insults against President Obama. Most likely, a few of the seats Likud lost went over to the more realistic-sounding Yesh Atid (Netanyahu's ads focused primarily on "being strong"). So, there's no groundswell for peace, but the alternating of automatic rejection and deliberate provocation will probably subside, regardless of which parties end up in the new coalition.

Obama will also benefit from the analysis that most Israeli voters -- especially those on the left -- did not cast their votes based on the peace process or the Iranian threat. They were most concerned with ending the religious exemption from the military draft, fixing the economy and promoting economic justice, and many other issues they see in their real lives. Nevertheless, a recent poll reported that 2/3 of Israelis still believe in a two-state solution, so there's still endemic support for peace under the right circumstances.

Israel's voter turnout was 67 percent, 1-2 percent higher than the last election, but hardly worth the media euphoria over "record turnout." We may be impressed here in the States, where turnout typically hovers somewhere below 50 percent. But in Western Europe, where political systems are more comparable, turnout ranges between 70 and 90 percent, so Israel's latest turnout bump is really no big deal. More importantly, it reflects that Israelis (at least the Jewish voters) are less disillusioned with their future than many of us had expected.

Pundits and partisans will continue to keep score in the ongoing, low-grade inter-personal friction between Netanyahu and Obama. Right-wingers here and in Israel were gloating earlier this week that President Obama's perceived slap of Prime Minister Netanyahu -- he was quoted in a recent article saying that "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are" -- backfired by boosting Netanyahu's popularity with his own constituents.

The reality? We're still waiting for results from the focus groups, but yesterday's election suggests the Obama remarks either had no impact or swayed some Israelis who were still on the fence. As we learned 20 years ago, when the first George Bush was President and the late Yitzhak Shamir was Prime Minister, Israelis enjoy hearing their Prime Minister talk back to the White House, but they still punish their leaders who don't get along with Washington.

Netanyahu may not have learned his lessons yet with respect to Israeli or U.S. politics -- after all, in early November he coyly threatened to strike Iran unilaterally again, even as Americans were re-electing Obama. But a wide enough slice of the Israeli public seems to have a good understanding of what it wants to hear from its government and what it's willing to tolerate from the White House. And President Obama has enough reasons to take a new look, too.