It's Not Obama Who's Meddling in Israel's Elections: It’s Reality

The stark warnings issued by the U.S. president and his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres, challenge Netanyahu’s effort to convince Israelis that they can have their cake and eat it too.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Likud stalwarts and their colleagues in the Israeli media are up in arms on Tuesday in the wake of Jeffrey Goldberg’s report on U.S. President Barack Obama’s critical remarks about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “He’s intervening in our elections,” Bibi champions protest, a complaint which, no pun intended, is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Obama is the second president who stands accused of meddling in the Israeli vote. The first was Shimon Peres. Ironically, the remarks of both presidents were made a while ago – Obama’s last month, when Netanyahu announced the construction at E-1 near Ma'ale Adumim and Peres’ in an interview to the New York Times conducted a full six months ago. In both cases, therefore, it’s the timing of the publication, rather than their original intent, that gives rise to the accusations of interference.

In their essence, the messages of both presidents are identical: there is only one solution, and it is the two-state solution; the government’s settlement policies are undermining any chance of achieving it; Israel risks alienating world public opinion and facing “near total isolation”, as Obama reportedly said, if it continues on its current path; and Netanyahu has disappointed those who believed (probably just Peres) that he had the courage and the wisdom to change the destructive direction in which Israel is headed.

Astute political players that they are, Netanyahu’s defenders are happy to “kill the messengers” as a means of obscuring their message. Peres and Obama, admittedly, are convenient punching bags on the Israeli right. Both are considered to be ridiculously nave about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both have been previously humiliated by Netanyahu and both supposedly have the Israeli right wing’s worst interests at heart. For hardcore right-wingers, the very fact that Obama and Peres are warning against a certain political path is reason enough to follow it blindly.

But it is not the legions of die-hard right-wingers that Bibi’s people are worried about, but the soft core supporters: those who are not too enthusiastic about Netanyahu but far less so about any of the alternatives; those who may actually support a two-state solution in theory but have no doubt that it is not achievable in practice; those who don’t support the construction of settlements outside the so-called “blocs” but have come to believe that Israel has been building to its settlers’ content while enjoying four years of security, prosperity and, relatively speaking, international popularity as well.

These voters may not love Obama and perhaps not even trust him, but they would prefer to believe that Israel’s prime minister can get along with him or, at the very least, contain him, as Netanyahu appears to have done during the president’s first term in office.

Netanyahu’s campaign depends on convincing such moderate Likud-Beiteinu voters that the prime minister can maintain his careful balancing act during his next tenure as well. Likud’s elections propaganda include photos of Netanyahu hobnobbing with Obama, shaking hands with Angela Merkel and bringing both houses of Congress to their feet, while continuing to build, build, build and then build some more.

The message from Peres and Obama, intended or not, is just the opposite: Israel is burying its head in the sand, its policies are growing increasingly unpopular, the world’s patience is running out and the country is heading for a fall, even it doesn’t seem that way at this very moment. Israel, Obama and Peres are warning, has been living off its overdraft for far too long, and its credit line is about to expire.

The cumulative effect of Obama’s words and Peres’ warnings won’t be too dramatic in absolute numbers, given that the center left has tragically failed to offer any plausible alternative to Netanyahu and is busy squandering the public’s goodwill on embarrassing internal squabbles. On the other hand, although Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc have practically been declared the winners in these elections well before the voting starts, it doesn’t really take a truly profound shift to the center-left to change the equation and to render all present prognostications worthless.

The right-wing religious bloc currently receives about 65-67 seats compared to 53-55 for the center right. A last minute move to the left by wavering centrist Likud voters and a break in its direction among the 20 percent of undecided could upset the apple cart and create a virtual tie between the two blocs that would utterly change the dynamics of post-election maneuvers.

Five days before voters head to the polls, the last thing Netanyahu needs is to contend with Obama’s attempt, intentional or otherwise, to inject a dose of reality into Israel’s LaLaLand election campaign. In the 1996 elections, when he was first elected as prime minister, no less than 8 Knesset seats moved from Peres to Netanyahu over the last weekend before election day. A worrier by nature, Netanyahu is well aware that it ain’t really over until it’s really over, and now he has to fret that perhaps it ain’t really over yet.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama meeting at the White House.Credit: AP
U.S. President Barack Obama. Must overcome his difficulties with Netanyahu to face the Iranian threat.Credit: Bloomberg

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