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Washington’s Israeli headache

March 20, 2015

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beat all expectations when his Likud Party won a decisive victory in the March 17th national elections. His solid performance certainly took Washington by surprise, where administration officials and lawmakers in Congress had been following the campaign in Israel closely. With Netanyahu a highly divisive figure among American politicians, US reactions to the outcome of the vote were mixed. However, in its immediate aftermath, as protocol required, everyone reiterated that the friendship between the two countries remains as strong as ever.

It is within the ranks of the administration that the displeasure with the Likud win is more palpable. “The White House will be severely disappointed in Netanyahu’s re-election,” says James Phillips, Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “He has been a major thorn in President Barack Obama’s side because of his trenchant criticism of the administration’s policies on Iran, the nuclear negotiations and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”

Rumors about exactly how invested Obama had been in the defeat of Netanyahu have long been swirling in the American capital. Jeremy Bird, a former strategist on the Obama campaigns, led the chief grassroots effort to unseat the Israeli incumbent with a group called V15. According to the New York Times, there is no evidence that Obama or any of his senior White House aides were actually connected to Bird’s work in Israel and, generally, it is pretty common for American political workers to get involved in Israeli elections. Nevertheless this became a source of controversy in the run up to the vote. Matthew Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, claims that the US President “was ‘intervening’ against Netanyahu” have been “overblown”. Still, Obama “made clear that he would have preferred to work with an Israeli government that was not diametrically opposed to two key US goals in the region, a nuclear deal with Iran and a two-state solution, as Netanyahu is,” says Duss. “I think Obama will probably be asking whether he should have actually intervened more forcefully to make clear the consequences to Israel of continuing with Netanyahu’s policies.”

In a sign of the little enthusiasm felt in the White House for the election results in Israel, at the time of writing Obama had yet to make a formal statement on Netanyahu’s victory or to call him on the phone as is customary (Secretary of State John Kerry had, although briefly). While votes were being counted on Tuesday night, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the President remains “committed to working very closely with the winner of the ongoing elections to cement and further deepen the strong relationship between the United States and Israel, and […] is confident that he can do that with whomever the Israeli people choose.” But the Los Angeles Times reports that, briefing journalists aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, Earnest also added that the US was “deeply concerned” about the very aggressive, some say racist, rhetoric Netanyahu employed during the campaign with regards to Arab-Israeli citizens. Earnest says it “undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.”

Congressional Democrats are overall less distressed by the result of the Israeli elections than their colleagues in the administration, but some may harbor apprehensions of their own about how this might play out domestically. “Many Democrats will be privately concerned about the growing rift Netanyahu is creating in the US over the relationship with Israel, which is increasingly an issue for the Democratic base,” says Duss.

It is little surprise instead that Republicans – who have forged a close relationship with Netanyahu, even inviting him to speak to Congress in early March without consulting the White House, and certainly don’t mind the kinds of troubles he makes for Obama – are genuinely pleased with how things turned out. “Congressional Republicans warmly welcome Netanyahu’s re-election and share his strong misgivings about Obama’s misguided policies,” says Phillips. Many, including some potential contenders for the 2016 presidential elections, rushed to congratulate him. “Prime Minister Netanyahu has been an extraordinary leader for Israel,” Ted Cruz, Republican Senator from Texas, said in a statement. “His electoral success is all the more impressive given the powerful forces that tried to undermine him, including, sadly, the full weight of the Obama political team.”

Going forward, two big questions hover over the result of the Israeli elections and whatever coalition government will emerge from it: how it will affect ongoing negotiations with Iran and the ever-more fragile Peace Process. As for the first issue, the answer should be not too much and, in any case, only indirectly. “Netanyahu’s ability to impact the actual details of any deal remain fairly limited,” says Duss. “Though of course he can continue to incite Congress against the negotiations, which can in turn create problems for the talks.”

More complex are the calculations as they pertain to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially after the Israeli Premier made a last-ditch effort to rally voters’ support by pledging, on the day before the elections, that he would not allow the creation of a Palestinian nation so long as he was in office. The hardening of Netanyahu’s stance – with his explicit rejection of the internationally sanctioned “two state solution” – further reduces Washington’s room for maneuver. According to the Los Angeles Times, en route to Ohio with the President the day after the elections, Earnest told reporters that the administration would have to “reevaluate our approach” in response to Netanyahu’s “change in his position” on a Palestinian state.

According to Duss of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, “we will see the US shift toward the United Nations and some effort to affirm the international consensus in support of the two-state solution and the illegality of Israeli efforts to prevent that solution through the growth of settlements.” He adds: “We’ll also see less enthusiasm on the part of US officials to expend valuable diplomatic capital in various international venues to protect Israel from the consequences of its own decisions.” Phillips of the Heritage Foundation believes that, at the end of the day, the status quo will prevail. “A victory by the Zionist Union may have brought changes,” he says. “But Netanyahu’s reelection is unlikely to substantially affect US calculations.” Which, in and of itself, is a big disappointment for the administration as well as for many American liberals, who had thought that change in Israel was finally within reach this time around but whose hopes have been crushed once more by an extraordinarily resilient Netanyahu.

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