Netanyahu has lost his claim to speak on behalf of all Jews
In the U.S. election, 70 percent of Jewish voters in effect chose Obama over Netanyahu as their leader.
As of Tuesday night, Barack Obama is the primary leader of the Jewish people.
Normally the primary leader of the Jewish people would be the prime minister of Israel, the elected head of the Jewish state, not the president of the United States of America. But Benjamin Netanyahu's American surrogates and proxies took that title away from him this week.
At every moment in Israel's existence, there have been more Jews living in the United States that here and even today, according to the most up-to-date data, there are 6.6 million Jews there to Israel's 5.9 million here. Not only is Obama responsible for the welfare of more Jewish citizens, he can also claim to have had more Jews vote for him personally than any other politician in world history.
The numbers are still being crunched and we probably won't have reliable surveys for another couple of months, but the initial exit polls indicate that around 70 percent of Jewish voters chose Obama on Tuesday. Less than a quarter of Israelis voted for Netanyahu's Likud in 2009 and the polls have him receiving a similar proportion in January's election, though he currently seems on track to form a ruling coalition again.
The Law of Return gives Netanyahu claim to be the leader of all the Jews; after all, Israel is the only country where every man and woman of Jewish origin can automatically receive citizenship. But that is a self-defeating argument. Every American Jew may be a potential Israeli citizen but very few of them actually choose to become one. The opposite is true; despite the obstacles the United States puts in the path of its prospective citizens, many more Israelis have moved to America than Americans have made aliyah.
Still, it's not just about numbers. Israel's leader is perceived by many as the embodiment of the Jewish interest. A veteran Israeli diplomat put the case to me in these terms this week: "The decisions of Israel's prime minister have an effect on every Jew around the world. A man living in an isolated town in Chile once said to me that 'when Israel does something admirable, it feels good to get up in the morning and be Jewish.'"
But that is a purely emotional response. The decisions of America's president have a much greater impact on the lives of people around the world, including Jews. Arguably he even has more influence over the lives of Israelis than their own leaders.
Over the years, Israel has bolstered its claim to speak on behalf of worldwide Jews. It has taken action to save and shelter Jews in danger, often jeopardizing its own economy and social stability in the process: Hundreds of thousands from Yemen, Iraq, Ethiopia, Syria and the former Soviet Union have been gathered and absorbed. But Israel does this whether the rest of the world's Jews like it or not (and many don't).
Many of these actions have been supported and may not have been possible without the largesse of both the U.S. administration and American Jews. While they are valuable allies to each other (and occasional liabilities), the alliance is a strategic necessity for Israel, less so for the United States.
Netanyahu has one advantage over Obama as the world's foremost leader of Jews: he happens to be Jewish himself. But that is not a necessary requirement. After all, there is no law barring a Muslim or Christian from serving as the prime minister of Israel, unlikely as that sounds. A Jewish president of the United States is much more conceivable. This may seem a rather fatuous and empty debate - there is no such title, so what does it matter who is the ultimate leader of the Jews? Obama is the president of the Americans and Netanyahu heads the government of the Israelis and that is that. But it isn't so simple.
Cruel dilemma for U.S. Jews
Both men loom much larger on the global stage and have wider moral and political claims. This has always been true of these two roles and while American, Jewish and Israeli politics have been intertwined for generations, usually there is clash between the leadership of "the free world" and the custodianship of the Jewish future. At times relations between these two men may have been testy, but the basic underlying responsibilities of their roles was rarely, if ever, in question.
This may have changed now in the wake of the presidential campaign. It would be disingenuous to pretend that neither Israel nor America ever interfered before in each other's internal politics and elections. But the way in which some Americans portrayed the choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as a struggle to save Israel from the president who threw it under the bus, and the terms of reference used to "wake up" American Jews to the horrible reality of a president who is indifferent if not outright hostile to Israel's fate, has made this in many ways a referendum in which Jewish voters were forced to choose between the incumbent American president and Israel's prime minister.
Netanyahu may not have been actively involved in any of this, but he did little if anything to minimize it. He could have distanced himself from this cruel dilemma thrust upon America's Jews, received Romney less effusively during his trip to Israel, urged their joint supporter Sheldon Adelson to pipe down (it probably wouldn't have worked, but at least he could have been seen to try ) and make it clear in public that both candidates were Israel's staunch supporters.
Numerous surveys have shown that Israel is not the foremost issue in the minds of the great majority of Jewish voters, and that like their fellow Americans they are concerned more with economic and social affairs than foreign policy. This doesn't matter.
Effectively, each and every one of them who voted for Obama on Tuesday was saying that he is the leader both of the Americans and of the Jews. And to a large degree, unless they are now planning to sell their homes, pack their bags and emigrate, it is true also of Romney voters. Sure, it was true in every American election since 1948 but now that choice has been brought into focus in broad daylight.
An Israeli prime minister's one unassailable claim to be acting solely on behalf of the Jewish people is that their interests for him are paramount. Every other leader has to take into consideration the interests of all his citizens, not just the Jews or, in the case of the American president, also global stability. Netanyahu has repeatedly made that claim to justify Israel's sovereign right to attack Iran despite the objections of its closest ally. The next time he makes it, Obama has earned the right to answer him: "Excuse me, Mr. Prime Minister, more Jews voted for me."