Obama II and Israel: The faultlines are starting to show
The 2012 elections may well prove to be a watershed in Israel-U.S. relations. Israel's chauvinist turn is increasingly out of sync with America's values, Netanyahu is no longer a useful ally, and Obama has new global priorities – and a war of choice with Iran is not one of them.
Ever since the U.S. news networks placed Ohio in the blue column last Tuesday night, the speculation has been as feverish as it was predictable - how will a re-elected Barak Obama square off to Sheldon Adelson’s more successful political investment, Benjamin Netanyahu?
The Israeli PM’s office hastened to emit noises of welcome for the President’s re-election and (unconvincing) denials of having been anything other than disinterested neutral observers of the American political scene. Those preparing to beatify Obama II as Israel’s savior (from itself) have joined with those demonizing him as “the Israel-basher in the White House” in anticipating the mother of all showdowns. Don’t hold your breath. The unsurprising signals emanating from the Oval Office in the past days have been of continuity.
The president announced that his first post-election overseas trip will be to Asia (Burma, Cambodia, Thailand), continuing a first term theme of re-balancing towards the Far East and de-prioritizing the Near East. Obama then spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an attempt to dissuade him from pushing a vote at the United Nations on Palestine’s status, instead encouraging an unconditional return to negotiations. Nothing new there.
Over time, this 2012 election season may be recorded as something of a watershed moment in American-Israeli relations. Change, though, will be gradual, not overnight. Israeli leaders do not tend to plan long term; if they did then this election would have added more food for thought to an already over-flowing plate. The U.S. is pivoting its global economic and national security agenda towards Asia, as the source of future global competition as well as in the context of its own strides towards energy self-sufficiency. Israel - as a domestic political issue rather than a foreign policy issue - will periodically force that trend to be bucked, but even that political equation is changing.
The Christian right which has provided political cover for Israel’s settlement overdose and anti-democratic turn, is the same Christian right which has dragged the Republican Party into an ever more socially intolerant direction (on gay rights, immigration and women’s choice for instance). It has just been found out as unable to deliver enough political wins in the cultural and demographic landscape of modern America. The narrow chauvinist nationalism of Likud Beiteinu Israel and its disenfranchisement of Palestinians is out of sync with where America is trending, with the values of the vast majority of American Jews and even with a democratizing Middle East.
Assuming Israel and America continue on their respective, and diverging paths, it will take years for the full magnitude of these changes to be felt. There will though be tremors, and here are four to follow in the coming months:
First, and in a matter of weeks, President Obama will have to decide whether to say or do anything that could impact Israel’s election. Don’t expect Obama to rush to be photographed alongside Yair Lapid at Ariel University or Shelly Yacimovich on Arutz Sheva. But, if this becomes a contested election and if national security issues – the territories and Iran – are issues of contestation, the US president might have some timely and choice words to share with the Israeli voting public. Those, of course, are big ifs.
Second, President Obama is well aware of how America’s closeness to an Israel denying Palestinian rights negatively impacts U.S. interests in the region and beyond. Alongside that, he is unlikely to expend political capital and energy on a “no-hope” cause. If the Israeli-Palestinian scene remains paralyzed then Obama II engagement will be mainly for the record. But if the issue is forced back onto the agenda then don’t rule out more robust Presidential leadership. That could happen by way of one or more of the following – the emergence of an Israeli partner; Israeli overreach generating a crisis; regional developments generating a crisis; or the Palestinians uniting to pursue a strategy for freedom that ends their self-marginalization (a “Palestinian Spring” if you like – and the proposed UN ‘non-member state’ vote is only a very minor step in that direction).
Third, Iran - which will be closer to the top of the re-elected President’s in-tray and an issue on which Obama will likely be more willing to push back against his Israeli counterpart. In his election night victory speech in Chicago the President reminded his audience that “a decade of war is now ending” – he did not conclude that sentence by adding “and may a new one begin”. All options may be on the table, but the military one is distinctly un-favored by Obama II. Diplomacy, even partially successful, will be the attempted antidote to Bibi’s drumbeat of war. The Iran file is, however, where Netanyahu has been most effective to date at boxing-in the President and limiting his room for maneuver. If Netanyahu does get his military moment in the Iranian sun, then expect Israel’s lurch towards self-destruction to accelerate and the dictionary definition of ‘pyrrhic victory’ to be updated.
Finally, President Obama will continue to navigate the shifting geo-politics and earthquakes in the region with patience and pragmatism. But he will do so without a confidant in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office for as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is its occupant. Netanyahu is not considered insightful or trustworthy or a realist in interpreting and responding to regional developments; he is not exactly a useful ally. That is the verdict of many world leaders, and Barack Obama is unlikely to be an exception to that rule.
Daniel Levy directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow at the New America Foundation.