Does Obama’s victory mean defeat for Netanyahu?

November 7, 2012

President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made little secret of his preference for Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election, part of a very public push against President Obama that went back to an early 2011 "truth tour" in which the Israeli leader lectured his most important ally from the floor of the U.S. Congress. It was an odd and potentially risky bit of diplomacy from Netanyahu.

Now that Obama has won reelection, many in the U.S. and in Israel see bad news for Bibi. "This is probably not a very good morning for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," his interior minister told a reporter today. It's difficult to imagine, though, that Obama would seek "payback" or "punishment" against his Israeli counterpart. The U.S.-Israel alliance has been so institutionalized (to borrow Steven Cook's word), the U.S. and Israel share so many mutual interests, and so much of the U.S.-Israeli relationship goes through Congress, that Obama doesn't really have many opportunities or incentives for payback.

But there is a more plausible way that Obama's victory could effect Netanyahu: by strengthening his opponents in domestic Israeli politics. The conservative leader's coalition is expected to retain power in an early 2013 election, prevailing over fractured political opposition. The big question is whether Israeli voters perceive Netanyahu as so badly mishandling the alliance with America, a crucial issue in Israel, that they push Netanyahu's coalition to the left, or out of leadership altogether. I asked some Israel-watchers about this, and they seem to think it's plausible but unlikely that Obama's victory will ultimately mean Netanyahu's defeat. 

"Israelis believe it is their [prime minister]'s job to maintain good relations with the U.S. above almost anything else," The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg told me when I noted that Israeli voters are not particularly enamored with Obama. Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former Obama administration official now at the Brookings Institution, asked whether voters would "punish Bibi in elex for his management of the relationship." Still, in order for Israeli voters to do so, they'd need to see "a unified and strong opposition party to exploit Netanyahu's maladroit handling of the American file," Goldberg said.

So far, though, there's not much of an opposition in place to champion any public backlash. Israeli columnist Larry Derfner sees this as the opportunity for one to coalesce. "The Israeli right is vulnerable as it hasn’t been in 12 years," he wrote at Israeli news site 972, going through possible candidates and parties. But Derfner is in some ways rooting for his own team. Some analysts don't see, as Wittes put it, an Israeli opposition figure "who can play this card effectively against Bibi." In any case, "this [strategy] only works if Israelis see tangible consequences resulting from Bibi's behavior," writer Michael Koplow predicts. And Goldberg warned it could be politically "dangerous" for Israeli politicians to hit Netanyahu "too hard" on the issue.

As for whether or not the U.S. president could inch the politics away from Netanyahu if he wanted to, Koplow has written, "Obama does not have the popularity, credibility, or familiarity with Israeli voters" to guide their votes. Though this potential Israeli political skirmish centers on the relationship with America, it is still a fundamentally Israeli issue that will likely be determined by Israeli, not American, politicians and voters.

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Olga Khazan · November 7, 2012