There's something in the air. Something new. Something as recent as this week's AIPAC conference. And for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it's not something to be desired. American conservatives have begun to think out loud that President Barack Obama will win re-election in November. Citing the GOP's disastrous showing in the 1964 presidential election, influential Washington Post columnist George Will suggested this week in a tone of some resignation ("The presidency is not everything") that conservatives might better use their energies by concentrating instead on Congressional and Senate races.
No one will be following the campaign more closely than the man adored by Republicans nationwide as the favorite son they can never adopt, Benjamin Netanyahu. And should Obama win a second term, perhaps recouping a measure of Congressional strength on his coattails, Netanyahu stands to lose as much as anyone.
Much of the prime minister's policy-making strategy has been based on educated hopes for a steady decline in Obama's first-term electoral strength and a Netanyahu-friendly Republican taking the White House in 2012. Marshalling conservative allies in Congress and the Jewish community, Netanyahu seemed to have shattered the Obama administration's linkage of Israeli-Palestinian peace progress (with its attendant threats to the settlement enterprise ) and resolution of other regional issues, notably Iran. But it's a different Netanyahu coming home this week. The Prime Minister's Office is no longer betting on Obama to lose. You can hear the change in the words of Israeli officials. Before the shift, during the run-up to AIPAC and a closely watched meeting at the Oval Office, the prime minister had five senior U.S. senators over to lunch, a group headed by Republican former presidential candidate John McCain. Officials, riding a frankly pro-Republican wave of sentiment, later quoted Netanyahu as telling the senators he was "disappointed" with Obama administration statements on Iran, adding that the public opposition of administration leaders - apparently including the president - to an attack on Iran "serves the Iranians."
On Tuesday, as the AIPAC conference ended, government figures in Jerusalem took a markedly different tack, one that began to confront the possibility that Obama may occupy the Oval Office for four fateful second-term years.
"We hope that if he is re-elected in November," Channel 10 television quoted officials as saying, "that he will appreciate Israel's restraint, if, in fact, Israel maintains restraint."
It was not lost on them that, at a key Congressional briefing Tuesday, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. James Mattis, signaled a rebirth of linkage, warning a joint military affairs committee that the current stalemate in the Israel-Palestine stalemate could not continue, and that talks toward a two-state solution were needed.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. By this time, aided by and aiding the Republican-in-all-but-name Netanyahu government, Obama and talk of an urgent need for negotiations toward two states were supposed to be on their way out. But as the U.S. economy recovers and the Republican Party guts itself in efforts to field a credible candidate to face Obama, the Netanyahu government is weighing a challenge that may prove politically second only to that of a nuclear Tehran - an Obama victory.
At issue are the twin underpinnings of the Netanyahu government, expansion of settlements and resistance to granting concessions to Palestinians. They are the cement that has kept in place an ill-fitting collection of political building blocks.
Second-term U.S. presidents often have much more freedom to bring influence to bear on their Israeli allies, a factor of significance if Obama seeks to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace as the cornerstone of his presidency.
Should Obama win, Netanyahu may have to radically rethink the composition of his government, as well as his strategy with respect to the Palestinians. He may have no choice but to begin to put substance to his commitment - empty until now - toward a two-state solution. In theory, Netanyahu will not let this happen without a fight. It is in his every short-term interest to help the GOP recapture the White House. But if Obama's electoral strength continues to grow, Netanyahu may be forced to concede that his fight has ended before it has truly begun. Most of all, Netanyahu will have to deal differently with Obama himself. It won't be easy. Where the current U.S. president and Israeli prime minister are concerned, there's never been a special relationship quite like this one.
Since Netanyahu's election three years ago, the only genuine leader of the opposition in Israeli politics has been Barack Obama. And for Obama as a first-term American president, Netanyahu has increasingly filled the same role. Early on, Obama mounted what became the only substantive challenge to Netanyahu's hard-line policies. But when the Washington-wrought freeze on settlement construction failed to jump-start peace negotiations, Netanyahu was quick to leverage Obama's flagging midterm popularity to his own advantage, turning much of Congress itself into a version of AIPAC. Netanyahu's May appearance before a joint session of Congress, arranged by Republican lawmakers, took on the tones of a shadow State of the Union address, underscoring the absence of a Republican figure capable of galvanizing broad support even on the U.S. right.
In the end, both men know that the wild card in the deck is war. On a strictly political level, the consequences of war before November - soaring oil prices, a plunging stock market, division and despair among Democrats - could spell defeat for Obama. Poker, with war in the balance, remains a game which Netanyahu, though seasoned, has shown himself to play only erratically. Obama, though new to the game, has become a quick study. Netanyahu is still in the game. But he can no longer afford to bet against Obama.
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