Obama Is Netanyahu’s Greatest Political Asset

The U.S. president bears some responsibility for the sorry state of Israel-U.S. relations. He has allowed himself to be maneuvered into a position where he can only help Netanyahu in Israel’s elections.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, October 1, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, October 1, 2014. Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer argues that Netanyahu has maneuvered in a way that the U.S. president has become an asset in the Israeli leader's effort to gain reelection.Credit: Associated Press

If two months ago anyone had predicted that two weeks before Israel’s elections Benjamin Netanyahu would be addressing Congress against the express wishes of the Obama administration, no one else would’ve believed that even Netanyahu would go that far.

If the prediction had suggested that a week before the speech a Likud campaign ad was accusing the U.S. of trying to prevent Israel’s establishment and Netanyahu was blaming the world powers for allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon, we would be calling for the men in the white coats.

All that has now happened and we are still no closer to understanding exactly why the prime minister, who supposedly knows America better than any of his predecessors, is plunging the strategic alliance into its worst crisis, at a time when Israel needs U.S. support more than ever.

Three possible reasons have been advanced.

First, Netanyahu says that the U.S. Congress is the best place to warn the world against a dangerous nuclear deal with Iran. It’s implausible that one speech, wherever delivered, can have that kind of effect, but Netanyahu has faith in his own rhetoric.

Second, this is the Likud’s ultimate strategy to dominate the election agenda and focus this campaign one one issue: Netanyahu’s ability to handle Iran. Whatever the public thinks of him, the polls agree that a majority of Israelis still say he’s better suited for this than any of his rivals is.

And while many find such reasoning the height of cynicism, Netanyahu and his immediate circle of admirers are convinced that Israel is headed for disaster if anyone else sits in the prime minister’s office. It’s not political expediency; it’s national necessity.

The third reason is rooted in the bizarre machinations and ego drives of Netanyahu’s American supporters and patrons, chief among them casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

For them, a bruising quarrel with Barack Obama is not an unfortunate byproduct of the speech, it is the desired outcome.

Each of these reasons figures substantially in Netanyahu’s motivation to jeopardize the special relationship between Jerusalem and Washington.

Unasked question

But the mountains of analysis and punditry so far have blamed mainly Netanyahu and partly the Speaker-Boehner-Ambassador-Dermer axis. The unasked question is: Would Netanyahu have even considered such a ploy if someone else had been in the White House?

Netanyahu would never have dared to pull such a stunt on Bill (or Hillary) Clinton or on one of the Bushes because their retribution would have been swift and terrible. They would have stopped at nothing to destroy him politically, and not in Washington but where it truly matters to Netanyahu, in Israel.

The administration’s response so far proves the point. John Kerry and Susan Rice this week have both criticized Netanyahu quite harshly. But telling Charlie Rose that Netanyahu’s actions are “destructive” and reminding a congressional committee of how he encouraged the US to embark on the Iraq War may damage Netanyahu in America, but it’s strictly for domestic consumption.

None of this resonates among Netanyahu’s potential voters in Israel (save for those Israelis who would never vote Likud anyway).

If he had dissed a Clinton or a Bush in a similar way, the rulebook would have gone out the window, a cohort of campaign advisers would have worked day and night and a slew of truly damaging information would suddenly have been finding its way into the Israeli media, all to ensure his downfall on March 17.

But Obama doesn’t play hardball.

Nearly six years ago, early in Obama’s first term, Netanyahu was still concerned about what Obama could do to him. That’s why he made the Bar-Ilan speech, for the first time accepting a two-state solution and agreeing to freeze settlement building for 10 months.

Since then nothing has happened to make Netanyahu feel he needs to fear Obama.

If at any juncture in that time the administration had made a brave and principled foreign-policy stand, Netanyahu may have had second thoughts.

But why should he fear a president who allowed Bashar Assad to blatantly cross every red line he drew in Syria’s blood-soaked soil? A president who had no problem with one of his advisers coining the phrase “leading from behind”? A president who has absented himself from any serious engagement with Russia’s creeping conquest of Ukraine, leaving that to the leaders of Germany and France?

Obama has choked every step of the way in the chaos engulfing Libya, Iraq and Egypt, failing to either exert U.S. influence over American allies or to stand by them.

Pro-western nations in the Far East despair over his lack of meaningful reaction to North Korean nuclear tests and Chinese aggression.

Netanyahu never liked Obama. He feared him from the moment he won the 2009 elections, just two months after his inauguration.

But which world leader who looked forward to the Obama era with hope has not been let down? Who has suffered from taking him on? Have Turkey’s Erdogan and the emirs of Qatar paid a price for actively supporting and abetting Islamic terror?

If Erdogan, Putin and Kim Jong-Un can get away with it, Netanyahu reasons, so can he.

Lasting damage

But Netanyahu is wrong. Israel relies on its alliance with the U.S. in ways that few other countries do, and the damage he is currently causing will outlive Obama’s last term. But for now Netanyahu is living in the short term.

It’s not just Obama’s singular inability to fight dirty that has enabled Netanyahu to take advantage. While the great majority of Israel’s political and diplomatic establishment is up in arms at his recklessness, the American president has no well of sympathy or respect to draw on to build an effective political counterattack.

As in so many countries, Obama has succeeded in dramatically letting down both sides of Israel’s political divide.

Netanyahu’s rivals, including Labor leader Isaac Herzog, are no fans of what they see as Obama’s foolhardy drive to sign a deal with the Iranians at all cost. And while the Israeli left wing yearns for a diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians, it is aghast at the ineptness of his administration’s efforts to move the peace process forward.

Unlike previous presidents, Obama made scant effort to court Israeli public opinion and is deeply unpopular here. On many levels U.S.-Israel security and diplomatic cooperation during the past six years has never been so close, but this fact has failed to register with the voters.

Likud figures privately are describing the furor surrounding the speech as a win-win situation. Now, no matter how the administration reacts, Netanyahu will score with his base, and all the criticism of his government’s social and financial policies and revelations about his personal affairs are being drowned out by the row with Washington.

At this point, a backlash may even work in Netanyahu’s favor. He has snookered the president into a position that no matter how he responds, he is likely to help Likud gain the right-wing votes it lacks to ensure it is the largest party on March 18.

Obama is currently Netanyahu’s greatest political asset.