Obama May Have One More Campaign Opponent to Overcome – Netanyahu

Running hard for re-election, Netanyahu may have a world to gain, and nothing to lose, by continuing to thumb his nose at a victorious president.

On January 21, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Barack Obama will be sworn in on the Capitol steps.

Some 13 hours later, polls will open across the state of Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks a re-election victory of his own.

In theory, Barack Obama's grueling months of campaigning ended Tuesday night. But if early indications hold, over the next 11 weeks, the president may still have one more campaign opponent to face – Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu made little secret of his preference for a Romney victory during the hard-fought U.S. race. Pundits have suggested that an Obama victory could spell retribution for Netanyahu, with a second-term White House free to exact payback on the prime minister as he seeks re-election.

But Netanyahu may believe that he has found a way to use the American election – and Obama - to his advantage.

Running hard for re-election, Netanyahu may have a world to gain, and nothing to lose, by continuing to thumb his nose at the president, and get away with it.

Until late last month, Netanyahu and his Likud party were seen as virtually invincible in his campaign for re-election in the January 22 election. But since stunning his own party faithful by tying the Likud's fate to that of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's secularist Yisrael Beiteinu party in a surprise merger, Netanyahu has lost precious ground in opinion polls, ground he cannot afford to lose.

If the prime minister is to reverse the trend, he will need to appeal to the sectors of his base that appear to be slipping away, in particular potential Likud voters, who describe themselves as religious or traditional in orientation.

Polls announced on Israeli television stations on Tuesday pointed the way to a possible Netanyahu strategy based on exploiting Israeli displeasure with, or distaste for, Obama.

A poll on Channel 10 showed that the more religiously observant Israelis are, the more likely they are to favor a Romney victory. Among secular Israelis, 50 percent favored Obama, and 50 percent Romney. But among the "national-religious" and ultra-Orthodox, the backing for Romney soars to 80 - 85 percent.

A second poll, released on Channel Two, showed that 50 percent of all Israelis backed Romney, versus 26 for Obama. The same poll, incidentally, also said that 56 percent of Israelis believed that Obama would win. Only 18 percent believed Romney would come in first.

From Netanyahu's standpoint, a strategy of dissing Obama for electoral advantage – if only through intermediaries, for the sake of plausible deniability - could be seen as especially attractive.

In fact, Netanyahu's been road-testing the concept for years.

Now that Obama has won a second four years in office, the giant-killing, Mouse That Roared, David vs. Goliath pose that Netanyahu has adopted in testy visits to the Obama White House – condescending to and lecturing his exasperated host - can curry a certain favor with Israelis who may feel more active dislike for Obama at a distance, than they do distrust and disenchantment toward Netanyahu close up.

Then, of course, should Obama dare to retaliate in any way, Netanyahu can crow that he was right all along, and that the president hates the Jewish state. Early on U.S. Election Day Tuesday, something of how this may play out, emerged in Israel.

Netanyahu "wasn't the one who created the difficult relations" with Obama, wrote Yoaz Hendel, formerly the prime minister's director of communications, in the mass circulation Yediot Ahronot.

"You must not confuse the rapist with his victim."

Meanwhile, shortly before polls opened in the United States, the Netanyahu government announced plans to push for construction of more than 1,200 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement city of Ariel.

It was precisely the sort of jab-in-the-eye that the government has been dealing the Obama administration at regular intervals, often with pointed and devastating timing.

During a 2010 conciliation visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden, for example, Jerusalem officials announced construction of 1,600 apartments over the 1967 Green Line border, shaming Biden, enraging the State Department and White House, and scuppering back-channel peace talks with the Palestinians.

And if that weren't enough, unnamed senior Israeli government officials were quoted Tuesday in statements reinforcing the theme of Netanyahu as Obama's valiant victim.

Referring to reports of ire in Washington over Netanyahu's perceived intervention in the U.S. campaign on behalf of Romney, Yediot quoted the officials as believing that "the anger of Obama's people toward Netanyahu is such that Obama will try, directly, or indirectly, to sabotage Netanyahu's election campaign.

"There's also a fear that Obama will choose the [Israeli] election campaign as a time to publicly criticize the prime minister's policies, and embarrass him."

Chances are, the prime minister, having some experience in how this works, can't wait for Obama to go ahead and do just that.