Israel is on the front lines in America's clash of ideologies
The major difference between Netanyahu-Clinton and Netanyahu-Obama is an ideological one; with Obama, Israel sits at the fault line of the animosity between the Democrats and Republicans.
Unless all the polls are wrong - or the Democratic Party and the Obama administration come up with an October surprise to reverse the current tide - the Republicans are expected to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November, and they have an outside chance of capturing the Senate as well. This raises the question of whether Benjamin Netanyahu's government should take this factor into account in pushing back against undue pressure from President Barack Obama & Co.
While the Netanyahu government has not even hinted at such a calculation, the public debate has already been launched by two "old America hands," Zvi Rafiah ("What makes Obama tick," Haaretz English Edition, Sept. 12 ) and a piece on Ynet last spring by Yoram Ettinger, "As Obama Gets Weaker, Israel Gets Stronger."
Rafiah advises the government to be conciliatory to the administration, given the preeminence of the executive branch in American foreign policy and Obama's determination to pursue his agenda even if he ends up a one-term president. Ettinger, in contrast, believes that bipartisan American support exists for a more assertive Israeli policy - a support buttressed by Israel's strong standing in U.S. public opinion.
If one is to judge by appearances, Netanyahu appears to be heeding Rafiah more than Ettinger, having been burned before in a similar situation: In 1996, Netanyahu arrived in Washington as a newly elected premier who had successfully defied the polls and the Clinton administration's blatant favoritism toward his opponent, Shimon Peres. There, Netanyahu was lionized by the Republican-controlled Congress, which he addressed to warm applause, particularly when he promised to find a Hebrew word for "privatization."
While the prime minister had good reason to be miffed at the Clinton administration's heavy-handed meddling in Israeli politics, his apparent identification with the Republicans became a liability, when Clinton recouped his fortunes by securing reelection and finding a way to work with Congress. For good measure, Clinton sent his A-team of political operatives - James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stanley Greenberg - to help Ehud Barak demolish Netanyahu in the 1999 elections.
Americans also tend to rally around their president in a confrontation with a foreign government, so for Israel, a confrontation is something to be avoided. However, even if Netanyahu has good reason for concern, he shouldn't veer to over-cautiousness and refight previous wars.
First of all, the prime minister has nearly exhausted the concessions he can make without eliciting reciprocal concessions from the Palestinians. He has aped his predecessors by emphasizing security and downplaying legitimacy. He now encounters an American administration whittling down that security - by, for example, proposing the deployment of an unreliable international force as a substitute for the Israel Defense Forces' presence in the Jordan Valley. More important, Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton. Rafiah's major argument that Obama would rather be right (or perhaps left ) than a two-term president highlights that difference.
When the Clinton administration sustained its electoral rebuff in the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton had no difficulty in pivoting to the center. After all, as the governor of Arkansas, he had been a stalwart in moving the Democratic Party nationally to the center. The economy was sound and this left the Republicans with little ammunition, aside from impugning the personal probity of Mr. Clinton, as in the farcical impeachment hearings stemming from the Monica Lewinsky affair.
It is hard to see Barack Obama repeating Clinton's feat, because Obama's natural habitat is the political left rather than the center. He received warnings that his presumed post-partisan presidency was perceived as left-wing in the 2009 gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and in the special election for the Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts. In poll after poll, the results are consistent: Obama and the Democrats are perceived as too liberal, but Obama prefers to ignore the message. As opposed to the folksy Clinton, Obama is a member of the elitist left, or what another Barak, former Supreme Court president Aharon, liked to call the "enlightened public." Members of the enlightened public do not compromise with unwashed gun-toting, Bible-reading yahoos, but go full steam ahead (e.g., constructing the Ground Zero mosque ) in the teeth of overwhelming popular opposition.
The major difference between Netanyahu-Clinton and Netanyahu-Obama is an ideological one. Israel is not merely a sideshow to the animosity between the president and the Republicans; with Obama, it sits at the fault line. Take the August speech by Representative John Boehner to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, hardly a Jewish audience.
"Israel is on the front lines of the ideological and violent clash we are confronting," said Boehner, who's on course to become the next Speaker of the House. "The attacks against it - whether through acts of violence, international criticism or manipulation of laws of war - are often the vanguard of what our country will face ... Where I come from, you stick by your friends, you stick by people who share your values. You do not send a message of strength to your enemies by shunning your friends and allies." This is a deeper level of support than the mere satisfaction evidenced by Republicans from Clinton's discomfiture in 1996 when Netanyahu defied his attempts to defy him.
Netanyahu has commendably learned lessons from his previous term in office. He must, however, differentiate between superficial similarities and a markedly altered reality.
Dr. Amiel Ungar, a political scientist, is a regular contributor to Haaretz English Edition.