Netanyahu Can Relax, Obama Won't Punish Him

The notion of reward and punishment in politics sounds likely, but is overly simplistic. Real life is much more complicated.

National interests determine relationships between states, not the love or loathing between their leaders. So, despite the mutual antipathy between the reelected American president and the Israeli prime minister, Barack Obama is not likely to "punish" Benjamin Netanyahu for interfering in the election through his open support for Republican contender Mitt Romney.

The idea of reward and punishment in politics sounds tempting, but it is simplistic. Real life is much more complicated.

Let's say Netanyahu had supported opposite positions and instead of royally hosting Romney in Jerusalem, had urged the Americans to vote for Obama. Would he have received in exchange an American bombardment of Iran? A little Tomahawk on a nuclear facility in Natanz or Fordo? Or just a declaration that from now on, American foreign policy will be based on the Likud platform?

Clearly, these scenarios are absurd. So why should anyone think Obama would change American foreign policy just to get back at Netanyahu?

Adherents of the reward and punishment approach believe the difference is in the president's positions. He would be happy to kick Israel out of the West Bank and establish independent Palestine on the settlements' ruins. He has only restrained himself so far because of his desire to be re-elected and his dependence on Jewish donors and voters. Now a re-elected Obama can treat Israel without inhibitions, and if Netanyahu continues to expand the settlements and say there's "no partner," he will find a much tougher American approach, goes the argument.

Perhaps deep in his heart Obama would like to treat Netanyahu like that. But he is not a private citizen and this is not a personal matter. He heads a superpower and does not need any unnecessary diplomatic failures.

In fact, Obama has no magic formula to force an Israeli-Palestinian peace and end to the occupation. His attempt to mediate between Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas and force Israel to suspend the construction in the settlements burst like a soap bubble. Something big has to happen to break the status quo and get the president to try again - a turnabout in Israeli public opinion or a third Palestinian intifada.

In his first term Obama was a cool-headed realist who put aside his ideology. He knew Netanyahu's seat was stable and that he had no significant rivals, so he was forced to work with him, despite the mutual distrust. This has not changed and Netanyahu appears the only candidate for prime minister. So it is doubtful whether Obama will try to interfere in the campaign. Anyway, what would he do - invite Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid to the White House and try to persuade them not to join Netanyahu after the election? Call on Arab Israelis to vote en masse to weaken the rightist bloc?

Netanyahu and Obama have three important issues that require coordination and understanding - Iran, Egypt and Syria. Obama will devote the first months of his second term to negotiating with Iran in a bid to reach an understanding to freeze the nuclear program. Israel will be asked to sit quietly and not interfere.

Netanyahu, for his part, has strengthened his public commitment to deny Iran nuclear arms and even go to war against the Islamic republic, contrary to the American position. There is a potential for confrontation between Netanyahu and Obama here, but also for a joint effort.

On other fronts, Obama and Netanyahu are groping their way in negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. Here their interests are identical - maintaining the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and ensuring calm in Sinai.

As for Syria, Netanyahu quietly supports Assad's survival and isn't even using the Syrian civil war for propaganda. Obama speaks out against Assad but is doing little. An escalation in the civil war will force him soon to take a side more bluntly. This will make it difficult for Netanyahu to continue to ignore the murderous drama across the border.

Dealing with Iran, Egypt and Syria and the danger of a third intifada in the West Bank will occupy Netanyahu and Obama in the coming year, leaving them no time for fighting. They will have to save the grudges from the election campaign for their memoirs.