American presidential elections are always keenly watched in Israel, which prides itself on being the U.S. best ally in the Middle East, and one of the closest in the entire world. One poll some years ago showed 86 percent support for the U.S. in Israel. Some Israelis joked that the police should intervene and find out who are the missing 14 percent were... Jokes apart, friendship with the U.S. has always been high up on the agenda of Israel's political leadership and its electorate at large and Israeli election campaigns were often heavily concerned with the state of Israel-U.S. relations at their time.
Such was the case in 1992, when late PM Shamir and President George H.W. Bush bitterly collided in the aftermath of operation Desert Storm over American strong objections to Israeli using loan guarantees money originally designed to help in absorbing the huge influx of new immigrants from Russia also in the West Bank. Shamir, Likud's leader at the time, lost the elections, and polls taken during the campaign and later on clearly indicated that the Israeli public was distinctly dissatisfied With the crisis between the two countries, and reacted accordingly.
Four years later, President Clinton tried to come to the help of then PM Shimon Peres in his bid to stay in power challenged by Benjamin Netanyahu, but this time, the American support failed to deliver, and Netanyahu won. There are other, less conspicuous examples for American-Israeli rifts during election campaigns, but the examples cited are enough to illustrate the level of intimacy between the two countries, while simultaneously also pointing to the high sensitivity attached to this relationship and the need for both sides to acknowledge this state of affairs and act accordingly.
It is in this context that we can address the implications of Barack Obama's victory yesterday on the future course of his personal relations with Netanyahu, and more importantly, the bigger question of U.S.-Israel relations in the immediate future, as Israel is bracing for its own elections on January 22nd 2013, and, of course, beyond that, in the coming four years.
It is a well-known fact that Obama and Netanyahu have lacked personal chemistry as of their first unfortunate meeting at the White House. It is also not a secret that Mr. Netanyahu rooted for a Romney victory in the American elections. A superficial look at the most pro-Netanyahu newspaper in Israel, Israel Hayom (Israel Today), owned and greatly influenced by Sheldon Edelson, Netanyahu's friend and Romney's financial backer, reveals what side of the aisle they supported. In fact, some of the immediate reactions in Israel indicate that Netanyahu's supporters are bewildered. Eli Yishai, a co-leader of the Shas party, Netanyahu's loyal past and probably coalition partner, specifically stated, that "this morning is not good for Netanyahu."
Likud Members of the Knesset expressed similar sentiments, and Netanyahu's political rivals from the Center and the Labor party were quick to castigate the PM for his alleged interference in the American campaign, that may now and in the future backfire on a large scale. In this blog, I referred to Netanyahu's statements about Iran in the months leading up to the American elections as potential time bombs, since they could be interpreted as an attempt to put pressure on President Obama during his grueling campaign.
So, are we about to witness a case of the chickens come home to roost, and President Obama will say and do what he considers to be detrimental for Netanyahu's reelection bid? Days will tell, but Netanyahu will most likely find himself under internal pressure from rivals in Israel, including the possibility that the question of the relations with the second-term president will become a pivotal issue in the Israeli campaign, and may prove to be damaging to the PM.
Beyond and above there are two issues that were at the core of the disagreements between Netanyahu and Obama and are likely to resurface in the very near future. One is the stalled peace process with the Palestinians, with the thorny issue of the settlements and the Palestinian bid for a UN recognition of them as a member state. The second is, of course, Iran and the ticking time bomb of its nuclear program. Netanyahu will say, and rightly so, that Israel maintains its freedom of action with regard to these two pressing issues, but, being a seasoned statesman, he knows that his scope of maneuverability has narrowed with Obama's reelection.
This is not a lose-lose situation for him though. Basic, bipartisan American support for Israel is intact, the alliance is alive and well, But in this alliance Israel was, is and continues to be the junior partner, and that requires policy and stylistic adaptations.
Is Netanyahu up to the task? Not much time until January22nd, and then, who knows? There may be, though it seems unlikely, another Israeli leader who should live up to the challenge of maintaining the deep friendship between the two countries.