President Obama told the U.N. General Assembly 18 months ago that he would seek “real breakthroughs on these two issues — Iran’s nuclear program and Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
But Benjamin Netanyahu’s triumph in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections keeps in place an Israeli prime minister who has declared his intention to resist Obama on both of these fronts, guaranteeing two more years of difficult diplomacy between leaders who barely conceal their personal distaste for each other.
The Israeli election results also suggest that most voters there support Netanyahu’s tough stance on U.S.-led negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program and his vow on Monday that there would be no independent Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister.
“On the way to his election victory, Netanyahu broke a lot of crockery in the relationship,” said Martin Indyk, executive vice president of the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “It can’t be repaired unless both sides have an interest and desire to do so.”
Aside from Russian President Vladimir Putin, few foreign leaders so brazenly stand up to Obama and even fewer among longtime allies.
In the past, Israeli leaders who risked damaging the country’s most important relationship, that with Washington, tended to pay a price. In 1991, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir opposed the Madrid peace talks, President George H.W. Bush held back loan guarantees to help absorb immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Shamir gave in, but his government soon collapsed.
But this time, Netanyahu was not hurt by his personal and substantive conflicts with the U.S. president.
“While the United States is loved and beloved in Israel, President Obama is not,” said Robert M. Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “So the perceived enmity didn’t hurt the way it did with Shamir when he ran afoul of Bush in ’91.”
Where do U.S.-Israeli relations go from here?
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s elections, tensions between the two sides continued to run hot. The Obama administration’s first comments on the Israeli election came with a tough warning about some of the pre-election rhetoric from Netanyahu’s Likud party, which tried to rally right-wing support by saying that Arab Israeli voters were “coming out in droves.”
“The United States and this administration is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab Israeli citizens,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters aboard Air Force One. “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.”
Earnest added that Netanyahu’s election-eve disavowal of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians would force the administration to reconsider its approach to peace in the region.
Over the longer term, a number of analysts say that Obama and Netanyahu will seek to play down the friction between them and point to areas of continuing cooperation on military and economic issues.
“Both sides are going to want to turn down the rhetoric,” Danin said. “But it is also a structural problem. They have six years of accumulated history. That’s going to put limits on how far they can go together.”
The first substantive test could come as early as this month, when the United States hopes that it can finish hammering out the framework of an agreement with Iran.
Netanyahu strongly warned against making a “bad deal” during his March 3 address to a joint meeting of Congress, an appearance arranged by Republican congressional leaders and criticized by the Obama administration for making U.S.-Israeli relations partisan on both sides so close to the Israeli election.
If a deal is reached and does not pass muster with Netanyahu, he is likely to work with congressional Republicans to try to scuttle the accord.
“The Republicans have said they will do what they can to block a deal, and the prime minister has already made clear that he will work with the Republicans against the president,” Indyk said. “That’s where a clash could come, and it’s coming very quickly.”
The second test — talks with Palestinians — could be even more difficult. In his September 2013 address to the United Nations, Obama hailed signs of hope.
“Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks,” Obama said in his speech. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “has put aside efforts to shortcut the pursuit of peace and come to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state.”
Today, the signals could not differ more. The Palestinian Authority has said that after it joins the International Criminal Court at The Hague on April 1, it will press war crimes charges against Israel for the bloody Gaza conflict during the summer. Israel, which controls tax receipts, has pledged to punish the Palestinian Authority by freezing its tax revenue.
The United States, which gives hundreds of millions of dollars of economic aid to the Palestinian Authority, would be caught in the middle. It has been trying to persuade both sides to stand down, but Netanyahu’s declaration that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch makes that more difficult.
“Now it’s hard to see what could persuade the Palestinians” to hold up on their ICC plans, Indyk said. “That has nothing to do with negotiations, but if both sides can’t be persuaded to back down, then they will be on a trajectory that could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority because it can’t pay wages anymore.
“That could be an issue forced onto the agenda about the same time as a potential nuclear deal.”