The Obama administration is going all out to see that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is defeated, but the campaign of veiled threats and anonymous leaks is backfiring: Instead of sinking in the polls, Netanyahu is rising.
When Netanyahu accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress in support of new sanctions on Iran, the Obama administration began a full-scale press offensive with a clear message: Netanyahu was endangering Israel by playing politics with the country’s relationship with the United States. Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned (through an anonymous aide) that “playing politics with that relationship could blunt [Kerry’s] enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender” and revealed that Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency had told him that new a sanctions bill would be “like throwing a grenade” into the negotiations with Iran. A senior administration official declared ominously to Haaretz that “President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.” A member of “Obama’s inner circle” launched an attack against Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer in the New York Times, accusing him of having “repeatedly placed Mr. Netanyahu’s political fortunes above the relationship between Israel and the United States.” The Times noted “Such officially authorized criticisms of diplomats from major allies are unusual.” The message to Israeli voters was unmistakable: If they reelect Netanyahu, Israel will pay a “price.”
While White House officials were threatening Israel, the news broke that Obama’s 2012 national field director, Jeremy Bird, was headed to Tel Aviv to manage a grass-roots campaign to oust Netanyahu. Bird would not be working to defeat Netanyahu if he thought Obama opposed it. Can you imagine Karl Rove going to London while George W. Bush was in office to help conservatives oust Prime Minister Tony Blair? It further emerged that the group behind Bird’s anti-Netanyahu effort has received State Department funding and lists the State Department as a “partner” on its Web site. Netanyahu’s Likud Party held a news conference to accuse its opponents of accepting foreign funds in violation of Israeli election laws, and Israeli newspapers published headlines on the “Obama-Labor link .”
In the context of the anonymous White House threats, having a top Obama campaign official in Israel actively working to defeat Netanyahu is naturally perceived as interference.
This campaign of intimidation and interference has begun to backfire. Obama’s popularity in Israel was already extremely low. A January 2014 poll showed that only 33 percent of Israelis approve of Obama and that only 22 percent — about one in five — trust Obama on Iran, while 64 percent do not. Asking Israelis to choose between trusting Netanyahu and trusting Obama with their security is pretty dumb.
And indeed the polls in Israel have moved in Netanyahu’s direction since the Obama attacks began. Two weeks ago, the opposition Zionist Union was leading by three seats in the Knesset. Last week, its lead had shrunk to two. Now, Likud has pulled ahead by one seat, and the Jerusalem Post reports “The poll found that the percentage of respondents who want Netanyahu to remain prime minister rose from 38% last week to 44%, tying the highest-ever result.” (The poll coincided with an attack on Israel’s northern border last Wednesday, which put security — Netanyahu’s strong suit — at the forefront of the election again.)
At least the White House could claim one victory back home: Obama officials succeeded in getting Senate Democrats to put off a vote on bipartisan legislation imposing sanctions on Iran until after March 24 — after the Israeli elections. But this was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Obama wanted to put off any vote on sanctions until this summer; now he has 13 Democrats publicly committed to move ahead with sanctions if there is no clear “framework agreement” with Iran in place by March 24 — less than two months from now.
Obama is clearly hoping that Netanyahu will lose the March elections and that a new, less hawkish Israeli government will be in place to back him on delaying sanctions before the March 24 deadline comes to pass. The irony is, his administration’s meddling in Israeli politics is making that increasingly less likely. Netanyahu is not out of the woods, to be sure, but when it comes to campaigning against Barack Obama, this much is certain: He’s no Mitt Romney.