So Barack Obama has been elected for another 4-year term and many if not most of us in Israel are not terribly happy about this turn of events. The pundits predict anything from a continuation of the cold but correct relationship that has been reigning lately, to closer relations in order to help Obama restore his credentials in the Middle East, to a much harsher relationship for the same reason.
First, the slightly more optimistic view: Rafael Ahren in the Times of Israel says “Four more years of mutual dislike? Not so fast”:
There was never any love lost between the two, and no one should expect the relationship between the two of them to improve in January if, or almost certainly when, Netanyahu matches Obama and gets reelected.
Still, what exactly a second Obama term means for Israel is not as clear as some may believe. The critics argue he will pay less heed to Israeli concerns about Iran, and tighten the screws on the Palestinian front, possibly forcing Jerusalem to make dire concessions regarding the stalled peace process. Others doubt he will significantly change course. But one thing seems certain: Obama’s victory will shake up domestic Israeli politics.
Let’s first look at how, if at all, Washington-Jerusalem relations will change as Obama enters his second term. It needs to be said, first, that the commander-in-chief is not the only decision-maker when it comes to US foreign policy. And in Congress, staunch support for Israel is a bipartisan matter of course.
Still, some pundits fear a reelected Obama will seek revenge on Netanyahu. Revenge for the obstinacy on the peace process, revenge for being too pushy on the Iranian question, revenge for openly challenging him during a heated election campaign — and revenge, of course, for Netanyahu’s alleged meddling in the US elections politics, by being overly warm to Mitt Romney.
After all, these pundits argue, Obama only played nice to Israel during his first term (and “nice” is a relative term) because he knew he would never stand a chance of reelection if he vexed the powerful pro-Israel camp. But now that Obama has a free hand to do as he pleases, no longer dependent on voters, the fear is that he could seek to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2009 and increase pressure on Israel to make difficult concessions to restart the peace process.
Others are convinced, by contrast, that Obama during his second term will look exactly like Obama in his first term.
“He is not going to kiss Netanyahu when they meet, but I don’t think his policies will change very much,” said Gabriel Sheffer, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University. “He will continue to pursue his politics concerning the peace process and the Iranian issue on the one hand, and continue to support Israel in the military arena, giving Israeli additional money and missile defense systems, and so on.”
For all the personal tensions, and the differences over Iranian red lines, settlements, et al., between Washington in Jerusalem during the last four years, no one can deny the fact that security coordination between the two nations is at an all-time high.
Yet security cooperation is not everything. On a personal and on a political level, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu was always frosty and at times even almost hostile.
But Iran and the peace process may not be the only areas where the prime minister and the president are likely to clash.
“Obama will probably try to intervene in the Israeli elections,” which take place on January 22 — one day after the presidential inauguration — Gilboa predicted. If a center-left party opposing Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc had a serious candidate for the premiership, Obama could invite him or her to the White House, thus unofficially endorsing Netanyahu’s opponent, Gilboa said. It wouldn’t be the first time Washington tried to influence an Israeli election, he added.
Even if the old-new president prefers not to interfere in Israeli politics, his reelection undoubtedly will affect the election campaign here.
The right-wingers will say that now more than ever Israel needs a strong leader who can stand up for Israel’s interests regardless of what the Americans say. The left-wingers will argue that Netanyahu ruined Israel’s relations with its most important ally and that a fresh face and a new policy is required.
So is Obama’s reelection good for Israel? Many left-leaning Israelis will celebrate, while many to the right will mourn. But history shows that the complexities of the Middle East often defy simplistic and stereotypical notions.
For a much darker pessimistic view, read David Weinberg in Yisrael Hayom who warns Israel: “Fill your sandbags”:
I’d like to believe that President Barack Obama’s re-election means nothing significant for U.S.-Israel relations, since “all Democratic and Republican presidents over the past four decades have been solidly pro-Israel” — as Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom argued on Israel Radio this morning. But Shalom is putting a pretty face on a forbidding situation.
Obama’s re-election means that Ehud Olmert is going to run against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Jan. 2013 Israeli election. It means that Obama is going to intervene aggressively in our election to boost Olmert. It means that a push for immediate Palestinian statehood is back on the international agenda. Most worrisome of all, it means that an American “grand bargain” with the Iranians, possibly at our expense, is on the table.
Obama’s anti-Netanyahu campaign will be the flip side to the campaign we’ve seen in recent weeks seeking to convince American Jews and Israeli Americans that Obama “has Israel’s back.” Just as the Jewish and Israeli press was swamped with pro-Obama testimonials from Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz, Jack Lew, General Dempsey and others, now we’ll get hints and warnings that the “unprecedented” gains in U.S.-Israel intelligence sharing and weapons development approved by Obama will wither if Netanyahu is re-elected. White House backing for Israel in the Security Council will be conditional upon Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, and so on.
In his second term, Obama will be seeking to fashion a long-term legacy. With Congress still at a deadlock, he will have difficulty aggressively advancing his domestic agenda. That leaves foreign affairs and defense policy, where he has a freer hand.
On matters that directly affect Israel, remember that Obama is deeply committed to three things: global nuclear disarmament, rapprochement with the Islamic world, and Palestinian statehood. I believe that he will forcefully act to progress on all three fronts, and this could bring him into conflict with Israel.
In July 2010, Obama pledged support for Israel’s right to defend itself by any means possible — by implication, even with nuclear weapons.
However, Washington seems to have backtracked on its clear support, and is now supporting a U.N. conference on a nuclear-free Middle East scheduled for December in Finland which could very well focus on Israel. This issue holds the potential for acute friction between the two countries. Prof. Uzi Arad, who was National Security adviser to Netanyahu and who negotiated the July 2010 understandings, says that America had indeed undertaken to ensure that there would only be “discussions” at the Finland conference, with no move to enforce nuclear restrictions on Israel. We’ll see …
There is a theory which postulates that Obama’s re-election brings the required showdown with Iran closer than a Romney win would have, because Obama is already so invested in the issue and so clearly on record as rejecting the mere containment of Iran. But I don’t buy it. Obama’s paramount commitment to rapprochement with the Islamic world, I suspect, will overtake his declarations of opposition to Iran. He never was going to, and never will, confront Iran militarily.
Which brings us to Palestinian statehood, which was one of Obama’s earliest and most earnest commitments. Mahmoud Abbas’ obstinacy hasn’t made it easy for Obama to back Palestinian aspirations, but Abbas is forcing the issue with his push for unilateral recognition of Palestinian quasi-statehood at the U.N. later this month. Israel expects Washington to punish the PA for this, but I wonder. And when Israel announces new settlement construction, adoption of the Levy Report, and other penalties to Abbas in response to the U.N. decision, I doubt that we’ll get much support from Obama.
So start filling your sandbags. We’re in for a rough ride.
The political knives came out in Israel immediately after the elections, with accusations that Netanyahu took sides in the US political process:
With Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections blowing wind into their sails, there are some in Israel speculating that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni will make an attempt to return to government.
Olmert, who is currently in the U.S. and is expected to return to Israel this week, is thought to have waited for the U.S. election results before deciding whether to return to politics after resigning in 2009, due to immense pressure following corruption charges. Apart from being convicted on one charge of breach of trust, and despite facing a possible appeal against his acquittal, Olmert still faces legal challenges in the Holyland real estate affair.
Olmert, it is thought, will seek to strike a deal with current Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz and return to the party, since by law it is already too late to form a new party. Current polls show that Kadima will not pass the electoral threshold and will be wiped out in the Jan. 22 Israeli election.
Both the Kadima and Yesh Atid parties attacked the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for what they perceive as his preference for Romney.
In an official statement Kadima said it was “happy for Obama,” although it is “concerned for Israel.”
“By betting on the wrong president, Bibi [Netanyahu] got us into trouble with the U.S,” read the statement, which was issued on Wednesday morning.
Yair Lapid, a popular journalist who left his job at the Channel 2 Friday night news magazine to enter politics less than a year ago, congratulated Obama for his victory on Tuesday.
A statement released by his party, Yesh Atid [“There is a Future”] said the party calls on the president to “stand by his explicit promise to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and to jump-start talks between Israel and the Palestinians as soon as possible.”
“The gridlocked peace process in the Middle East threatens the region’s stability,” the statement read.
The party also expressed hope Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “takes immediate action to repair the damaged relations with the U.S. administration,” explaining that “throughout the U.S. campaign the prime minister acted in a way that came across as over-the-top meddling on behalf of the Republican nominee; this is foreign to the way the two countries have normally interacted with each other; undoing the damage inflicted by such irresponsible conduct is of paramount importance to Israel.”
Deputy Knesset Speaker Shlomo (Neguse) Molla (Kadima) echoed his party’s statement, saying that “Netanyahu’s meddling and efforts to have Mitt Romney win have hurt Israel.” Molla explained that Netanyahu’s conduct was “mind-boggling and condescending.”
“This will ultimately have the effect of compromising the strategic relations between the two states; as has been stated before, Netanyahu not only lost his bet, he was also disgraced,”
Other politicians however came to Netanyahu’s defense:
Appearing at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro said Obama’s relations with Netanyahu will not be affected by any personal disputes the two may have had during his first term, calling the re-elected president a “strategic thinker. “His policies are not governed by emotion,” he said. “Anyone who knows the president understands that this is not how he thinks.”
Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz congratulated Obama on Wednesday and praised the “fascinating democratic process undertaken by a superpower comprising 300 million people through their unique system.” Katz said the U.S., as the leader of the free world is “a great ally” of Israel and predicted that the two countries’ joint interests will be well-served by Obama’s re-election. Katz, who was speaking on Israel Radio, was responding to the question on whether he would have preferred a Romney victory.
Deflecting criticism that Netanyahu tried to influence the U.S. election, Katz said that the prime minister simply expressed his views on Iran throughout the campaign, as he has “immense responsibility to protect the entire Jewish people.”
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz also slammed the accusation that Netanyahu had played favourites in the elections:
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz came to his leader’s defense Thursday, rebuffing criticism by former prime minister Ehud Olmert who charged that in showing preference for Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the US elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had damaged the US-Israel relationship.
Calling Olmert’s accusation “absurd,” Steinitz advised him “not to interfere in the elections in Israel and certainly not with statements that may cause damage to the State of Israel.”
In an interview to Israel Radio, Steinitz added that the “excellent” relations with the US would continue and that security and economic cooperation had improved in recent years.
On Wednesday [US Ambassador Dan] Shapiro ruled out the possibility that Obama would harbor ill will toward Netanyahu for the latter’s perceived support for Romney. “Anyone who knows the president understands that this is not how he thinks,” Shapiro said, adding that talk of revenge against Israel for Netanyahu’s political preferences was “ridiculous.”
In summary, most Israeli politicians congratulated Obama on his re-election, but MK Danny Danon warned that Israel must not give in to his demands.
World Likud Chair Danny Danon, however, was not as diplomatic. “Israel must not cave in to Obama’s demands; his re-election attests to the fact that the responsibility of furthering Israel’s interests lies with Israel and Israel alone,” Danon said. “We cannot trust anyone but ourselves,” he added.
Interestingly, the Arab world did not seem overly enthused by Obama’s re-election, as reported in the Times of Israel:
The leaders of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority rushed to congratulate Obama on his victory, but Islamist officials were more reserved in their public statements.
Sami Abu-Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, called on the newly reelected US president to reassess his “biased” position in favor of Israel. Hamas government spokesman Taher Nunu appealed to Obama to adopt “a moral policy, devoid of double standards” towards regional issues.
“We heard moderate speech from Obama following his first term victory, but his policy was inconsistent with the speeches he gave in Egypt and Turkey,” Nunu told the press. “He now has an opportunity to implement those promises to the nations of the region, far from pressures by the Israel lobby and politicized money.”
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood official Issam Al-Aryan was pessimistic Wednesday that Obama’s foreign policy would change significantly during his second term in office.
Abdel Bari Atwan, the Arab nationalist editor of London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, understood Obama’s call in his victory speech ”to free ourselves from foreign oil” as a “worrying warning to the government of Saudi Arabia,” the largest exporter of oil to the US.
“No sense of exhilaration,” tweeted British Iraqi political commentator Anas Al-Tikriti. “Just somber contentment that a worse outcome was avoided.”
Meanwhile, Iranian parliament member Muhammad Karim Abidi, deputy head of the parliament’s human rights committee, told the Arabic-language television channel Al-Alam that Obama must fulfill promises made during his first term in office. He cited issues such as closing the American prison in Guantanamo Bay; correcting US policy toward [the oppression of Shiites in] Bahrain; and reducing support for “capitalists.”
Abidi also called on Obama to reduce his country’s nuclear arsenal and rid Israel of its “nuclear and chemical weapons of mass destruction.”
The above Iranians also stressed that they refuse to be pushed into talks with the US:
Iran won’t be pressured into engaging in bilateral talks with the US over its nuclear program, a top Tehran official said Wednesday, in a message seemingly aimed at tempering hopes for progress in the wake of US President Barack Obama’s reelection.
Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of Iran’s human rights council, told the semi-official Mehr News that Tehran would only come to the negotiating table on its own terms and only if it benefited the Islamic Republic, according to a report by the state-run Fars news agency.
His comments came hours after Obama secured a second term in the Oval Office. Reports had surfaced several weeks ago that the US and Iran had held secret talks to open a new diplomatic channel and that Iran was awaiting the results of the election to make a decision. Both countries denied the reports at the time.
“Negotiations with the US due to pressure is not acceptable to us,” Larijani said during a speech in the northern Iranian city of Anzali. “Negotiations with the US should [be contemplated] while having the country’s interests in mind.”
Though the White House denied it had held talks with Iran over establishing bilateral negotiations over its nuclear program, it said an offer to Iran to open talks had been on the table since Obama took office in 2009.
Some analysts believe Obama’s reelection may offer the Iranians a chance to advance negotiations and back down before Israel or the US decide to act militarily.
“The chances of getting negotiations up and running are much better with Obama, and he’s likely to go for that,” an unnamed Western diplomat based in Tehran told Reuters. “The clock is ticking and we need to get it sorted. If the Iranians are looking for a way to climb down, this is a good chance.”
Last month Israeli daily Maariv reported that Obama had offered Iran a wide-ranging incentive package that would involve reopening full diplomatic ties with Tehran, in a bid to pull the country back from its nuclear program.
Gary Sick, an Iran expert and former US national security official, told Reuters that by securing four more years in Washington, Obama now had a wider mandate to coax Iran to the negotiating table.
“Obama has prepared the ground very carefully and has the option of trying to cut some kind of a deal on the nuclear issue, and that’s worth a lot to him,” he said.
There it is: four more years of Barack Obama. What does it mean for Israel?
The bilateral talks with Iran run by Valerie Jarrett will continue. One can hope for the best, but it is very unlikely that an agreement will be reached that will include the effective dismantling of Iran’s bomb-building capability. It’s not at all comforting to think that Israel’s security will be in the hands of Jarrett, Obama’s Chicago fixer. One can speculate what Romney might have done differently, but that is not an option now.
It’s certain that the Iranian regime will not abandon the goal which will bring it geopolitical primacy in the region and for which it has striven (and its people have suffered) mightily, except if it is forced to do so by a credible threat of force. Will Obama make such a threat?
[…] He will make a deal, a deal that will be satisfactory for the US and for Iran. For the US, it will have to appear as though the Iranian program has been derailed, or at least put on hold for the foreseeable future (a few years, in today’s world). For Iran, it will have to allow the regime to continue to put the pieces together to allow a rapid breakout as a nuclear power.
As far as Israel is concerned, nothing is as important as the Iranian question. It’s unlikely that a US-Iran deal will satisfy Israel, because Israel is not at the table.
I doubt that Obama will do much about the Palestinian issue the short term. He must understand by now that there is simply no overlap between Israeli and Palestinian positions of such things as refugees, Jerusalem and the continued existence of a Jewish state. On the other hand, there is a danger that unfettered by electoral considerations, he and his advisers will give free rein to their undisguised pro-Palestinian ideology, and move even further in their direction. I think it’s harder to predict what the administration will do in this area, because it is almost entirely determined by ideology, and not perceived interests. The administration does not appear to see the fate of Israel as especially relevant to practical US interests.
I do expect continued pressure for ‘regime change’ in Israel. Obama apparently feels that PM Netanyahu is an obstacle, and will do his best to help the opposition. His poorly-hidden dislike and disrespect for Israel’s Prime Minister is remarkable, especially compared with his attitude toward other foreign leaders, especially Islamists like Turkey’s Erdogan and Egypt’s Morsi — not to mention his remarkable obeisance to the king of Saudi Arabia, one of the countries whose political ideology and human-rights behavior is about as far from American ideals as can be imagined.
No, now the option for Israel is to expect very little from the administration, to prepare for the day that there is no alternative but to strike Iran, to assert its rights in the territories (in part by adopting the Levy report) and Jerusalem, to continue to insist on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and an end to the fantastical demand for ‘right of return’ as conditions for any agreement with the Palestinians. Now is not the time for Israel to demonstrate flexibility in return for good will, because it will not get good will from this administration.
To paraphrase the apocryphal Chinese curse, we certainly live in interesting times.