America Becomes a Double-edged Sword for Netanyahu

Adelson helped him to victory, Obama could doom him to defeat.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

For over 80 percent of the world's Jews, 5773 will be a year of choice. First in the U.S. presidential elections in five and a half weeks, then in the Israeli elections which have yet to be announced but will have to be held sometime this Hebrew-calendar year.

It's unclear how many of these Jews hold dual citizenship and will actually be voting in both elections. But in reality, every American voter, not just the Jewish ones, will have a direct effect on the Israeli campaign.

Surveys show that Israelis are more concerned over losing their strategic alliance with the United States than they fear an Iranian nuclear bomb. Though very few serious observers believe there is much prospect of U.S.-Israeli ties being seriously downgraded during the administration of whichever candidate wins in November, there are certainly grounds to believe that the Obama-Netanyahu relationship will become even more acrimonious, should both leaders be reelected as polls indicate is likely. They have both been so bad at papering over their differences in public that there is little hope for any improvement once Obama enters his second term, unencumbered by electoral considerations.

There is insufficient data to indicate how an Obama victory, or a surprise Romney win, may alter the course of the Israeli campaign. Past experience is inconclusive - in 1996 Netanyahu won despite the Clinton administration making clear they favored Shimon Peres, while in 1999 there were more immediate reasons for his defeat than the lack of rapport between Jerusalem and Washington. But 2012 is very different.

Let's start with what seems now as the less likely scenario. Should Romney confound expectations and the pollsters and emerge victorious, the local perception in Israel will be that Bibi was a genius to have bet against the odds on the winning horse. There is no question that both of them are on the same team - Romney is the man Sheldon Adelson was prepared to put $100 million on just as long as he beat Obama. This is the same Adelson who has invested tens of millions over the last five years in a newspaper devoted to putting and then keeping Netanyahu in power. If Romney wins in November, it doesn't matter when the Israeli elections are held, Netanyahu will prevail.

If, on the other hand, Obama secures another four years in the Oval Office, then no matter how he treats Netanyahu and Israel over the next few months, Bibi's opponents and media critics will ceaselessly remind voters how the prime minister allowed himself to be openly aligned with the president's rival. Will that harm Netanyahu's reelection bid? It depends on how deep the mistrust between him and Obama will seem and what other issues are on the agenda, but opposition politicians are already routinely blaming him for jeopardizing Israel's most crucial relationship. For now, not one of his challengers is seen as a credible prime minister, and the electoral mathematics still favor a right-wing-religious coalition, but a full-blown crisis with the administration may yet prove the most significant threat to the chances of a third Netanyahu victory. If Obama wins in November, Netanyahu may very well regret his decision four months ago not to hold early elections in 2011.

Diaspora-funded campaigns

An outcome in which the verdict of American voters leads to Netanyahu's downfall would be deeply ironic. There has never been an Israeli politician so attuned to America, albeit to a very specific part of it, one who owes his political success to the time he spent in the United States and his connections with prominent American Jews. But while Netanyahu has a huge part in making the Jewish Diaspora a player in local Israeli politics, it is a development that would most likely have come about anyway. As election campaigns become more expensive, Israeli candidates increasingly look to foreign Jewish donors to finance them, and Netanyahu is hardly unique in this; previous prime ministers Olmert, Sharon, Barak and Peres all had their own lists of favored backers from around the world. But while in most Western countries fundraising is an accepted and almost respectable part of politics, in Israel it is still regarded with distaste, and campaign finance law makes it relatively difficult for one single donor to have a major impact. That's why the founding of Israel Hayom, Adelson's pro-Netanyahu free newspaper, was such a masterstroke. In a rare interview this week with Politico, Adelson was very frank about what he hoped to achieve with the paper. "We are too fair," he quipped. "We intended to make it fair and balanced because the other newspapers are so far to the left. The problem in education and in the press is that everybody is to the left."

Adelson not only helped Netanyahu overcome the media antipathy towards him by creating from nothing the most widely-available paper in Israel as his incessant supporter - he may also have established a new pattern for media ownership in Israel. As print media continues losing millions and someone has yet to come up with a formula for making a profit out of popular or quality journalism on the Internet, it will rely to an increasing degree on the largess of philanthropists. Adelson is not alone; World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder was an early investor in Channel Ten and is now poised to save it from bankruptcy. British-Israeli investor Shlomo Ben-Zvi, who bought failing Maariv last week, has owned right-wing Makor Rishon for nearly a decade, and Leonid Nevzlin owns 20 percent of Haaretz. (Ben-Zvi and Nevzlin both hold dual Israeli citizenship but their media acquisitions have been financed mainly with money from abroad. ) The Times of Israel website launched earlier this year is bankrolled by Boston hedge-fund magnate Seth Klarman, who wrote in his initial "Note from the Chairman" that " (W )hile this is a for-profit enterprise, I pledge my share of any gains to charities in support of the citizens of Israel."

The entrance of considerable foreign Jewish money to Israel's media market is a mixed blessing for its embattled democracy. Anything that ensures the survival of venerable publications and the refreshing presence of new ones, securing the livelihood of journalists and other employees, is a positive thing. But since 1899 when the early Jewish settlers in Ottoman Palestine managed to shake off the rule of the pekidim, the officials representing Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who financed the building of most of the settlements, the yishuv and then sovereign Israel has been in charge of its own decision making. Foreign philanthropists have been honored and respected, but it was made clear to them they were to have no say in running the country. For and better and for worse, the Diaspora, its more well-heeled members along with rank-and-file American voters, are about to have an unprecedented say in Israel's future.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Reuters



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