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Netanyahu has dominated the U.S.-Israel relationship. What happens if he’s gone?

After a decade, a change could be coming

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (Atef Safadi/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

His party came in second in Tuesday’s elections. A fraught coalition negotiation is underway, but the other side doesn’t even want to meet with him. And if he clears those hurdles, indictments for corruption might lie around the corner.

It’s not over yet, and Israel’s Houdini may pull off another great escape. But after a decade in power for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s possible to imagine the end of his era. It has been quite a ride.

The U.S.-Israel relationship is deep, broad and multifaceted. It comprises security, economic, technological and societal components. It is more than the personal ties between our leaders. And yet Netanyahu has become a larger-than-life figure whose personality and presence dominate our nations’ relations. The longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, Netanyahu has led the country since 2009 (after three years in the late 1990s). But his attempt to secure a fifth term with early elections in April backfired, leading to a deadlock then and an inconclusive draw in this past week’s rerun of the vote, one he may not survive.

It’s hard to overstate how much Netanyahu has made diplomacy about personality. Arriving in the United States as part of his traveling party, as I often did while serving as U.S. ambassador to Israel, was a bit like being in the entourage of a rock star.

Cameras flashed. Prominent political, business and community leaders sought audiences with him. Famous news anchors lined up to interview him. And the visit was usually capped off by a bravura performance from a famous stage: a speech at the United Nations, in Congress or before a convention hall full of supporters.

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His oratorical skills are universally admired. His English, honed during his high school years in suburban Philadelphia and early professional stints in Washington and New York, is unaccented and idiomatic. He knows his brief inside and out, as one would expect of a man who has spent decades thinking about the challenges to his country’s security and the pathways for its success. Small talk does not interest him. He is relentlessly on message.

That doggedness has been the key to Netanyahu’s political success. The country faces serious, even existential threats. It’s one of the United States’ closest partners, in a region where that role has gotten more and more complicated. The Israeli people appreciated that Netanyahu engaged in tireless advocacy on the world stage on their behalf.

But the magnetic pull around him sometimes struck me as extreme. In one visit during President Barack Obama’s first term, there was a luncheon in the Cabinet Room of the White House after a meeting in the Oval Office. On the Israeli side of the table, Netanyahu was flanked by a few fairly anonymous aides. Across from him sat the president of the United States, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, the White House chief of staff and an assortment of senior envoys. There was no division of labor. Unlike with most other world leaders, every senior U.S. official felt it important to be in his orbit.

Netanyahu’s personality defined so much of our relationship. Would he take risks for peace with the Palestinians? How would he handle his challenging coalition politics? Would he strike Iran’s nuclear facilities? How far would he insert himself into U.S. domestic politics?

These questions often dominated internal U.S. policymaking discussions. In the Obama years, entire national security sessions were devoted to armchair psychology, focused on how we could get Netanyahu to budge on a minor concession in peace talks, how to convince him he could survive the political risks of doing so or how to manage his at-times prickly personality to avoid blowback over disagreements, whether personal, rhetorical or policy-focused. (His speech to Congress against Obama’s Iran nuclear deal in 2015 encompassed all three of these.)

Some of my colleagues in the administration found him frustrating, and with serious disputes between us, tensions rose on both sides. The more time I spent with Netanyahu as ambassador, the more I realized how much energy we in the U.S. government were wasting on these mind games. On the one hand, he was the leader of a close ally with which the United States has much in common and cooperates deeply. The Israeli people’s choice of him as their prime minister deserved our respect. But he was also a political actor in a country whose interests at times diverged from ours, and he was unlikely to be swayed by us on matters he considered essential to his nation or to his own fortunes. We could have all benefited from less drama.

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But after the difficult years of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship (which echoed similar troubles with President Bill Clinton during Netanyahu’s first term in the 1990s), the prime minister emerged as one of President Trump’s closest international partners. Their deep mutual admiration has kept Netanyahu in the American public eye, defending Israel’s interests and highlighting areas of agreement with Trump.

He has also earned the ire of those Americans who define Trump as a uniquely dangerous figure in U.S. history and see Netanyahu’s exaggerated embrace as going beyond good working relations with the president and amounting to a political endorsement. But now, after open attempts to help Netanyahu win in April, Trump’s ardor seems to have cooled. On Wednesday, he offered a very un-Trumpian take on the Israeli election draw, ignoring his friend’s troubles and saying, “Our relations are with Israel” — not its prime minister.

If indeed this iconic leader, such a fixture on the world stage, soon passes from the scene, it will affect U.S.-Israel relations. There is no other figure in Israel — and certainly none among his likely successors, whether from his Likud party or from the opposition Blue and White — who could approach the job of prime minister in quite the same way, as far as the United States is concerned.

None have Netanyahu’s skills as a speechmaker, his native-level English, his supreme (if at times dated) confidence in his knowledge of U.S. society, his network of contacts among American elites, his willingness to play in U.S. politics to advance Israel’s interests. None are as recognizable to the general public, and none will inspire the outsize love or the deep antipathy that Netanyahu elicits from different audiences.

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The change could, in fact, be healthy. It could reduce the prime minister to realistic dimensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Ties between Netanyahu’s successor and Trump could certainly be warm — always desirable between the leaders of allies — without being overpowering. Israel’s leader could become a less controversial figure, maybe even an afterthought, in U.S. politics, sustaining cordial relations with members of both parties while moving past the strains with Democrats that emerged around the Iran deal and have continued under Trump (with encouragement from the White House). This leader might build connections to the younger, diverse America beyond the New York- and Washington-based think tanks and television studios where Netanyahu has felt at home since the 1980s.

Such a prime minister would still, appropriately, be a fierce advocate for Israel’s interests. Our countries would remain close partners in many fields, supporting each other’s security. We would also face some of the same disagreements and dilemmas that we currently do, on issues such as how to sustain and advance prospects for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

A lower-profile Israeli leader would not lessen our cooperation but could make it easier to manage our differences, with the U.S.-Israel relationship conducted by leaders on good terms, supported by professionals, without the dramatic highs and rancorous lows that have been such common features of the Netanyahu years.

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