Four Tremors That Could Shake Israel

Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy
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Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy

Ever since the U.S. news networks placed Ohio in the blue column last Tuesday night, the speculation has been as feverish as it was predictable: How will a reelected Barack Obama square off to Sheldon Adelson's more successful political investment, Benjamin Netanyahu?

The Israeli Prime Minister's Office hastened to emit noises of welcome for the president's reelection and (unconvincing ) denials of being anything other than a disinterested neutral observer of the American political scene. Those preparing to beatify Obama II as Israel's savior (from itself ) have joined with those demonizing him as "the Israel-basher in the White House" in anticipating the mother of all showdowns. Don't hold your breath.

The unsurprising signals emanating from the Oval Office in recent days, and notably following the Gaza attack, have been of continuity. To begin with, the president announced that his first post-election overseas trip will be to Asia (Burma, Cambodia, Thailand ), continuing a first-term theme of rebalancing foreign policy toward the Far East. Obama then spoke with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an attempt to dissuade him from pushing a vote at the United Nations on Palestine's status, instead encouraging an unconditional return to negotiations.

With the launching of Israel's Operation "Pillar of Defense" against Gaza, the president avoided criticism and recognized Israel's "right to self-defense." So nothing new in any of this.

Over time, this 2012 election season may be recorded as something of a watershed moment in American-Israeli relations. Change, though, will be gradual, not overnight. Israeli leaders do not tend to plan long-term; if they did, then this election would have added more food for thought to an already overflowing plate.

America is pivoting its global economic and national security agenda toward Asia, as the source of future global competition, as well as in the context of its own strides toward energy self-sufficiency. Israel - as a domestic political issue rather than a foreign policy issue - will periodically force that trend to be bucked, but even that political equation is changing.

The Christian right, which has provided political cover for Israel's settlement overdose and antidemocratic turn, is the same Christian right that has dragged the Republican Party into an ever more socially intolerant direction (on gay rights, immigration and abortion rights, for instance ). That plays increasingly badly in the cultural and demographic landscape of modern America.

Meanwhile, the narrow chauvinist nationalism of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu and its disenfranchisement of Palestinians is out of sync with where America is trending, with the values of the vast majority of American Jews and even with a democratizing Middle East. Assuming Israel and America continue on their respective, and diverging, paths, it will take years for the full magnitude of these changes to be felt. There will, though, be tremors, and here are four to follow in the coming months:

First, in a matter of weeks, President Obama will have to decide whether to say or do anything that could have an impact on Israel's election. Don't expect him to rush to be photographed with Yair Lapid at Ariel University or Shelly Yacimovich on Arutz Sheva. But if this becomes a contested election and if national security issues - the territories and Iran - are issues of contention, the U.S. president might have some timely and choice words to share with Israeli voters. Those, of course, are big ifs, especially given the consensus that has descended on the Israeli political scene in support of the military strikes on Gaza.

Second, Obama is well aware that America's closeness to an Israel that denies Palestinian rights has a negative impact on U.S. interests in the region and beyond. Alongside that, he is unlikely to expend political capital and energy on a hopeless cause. If the Israeli-Palestinian scene remains paralyzed, Obama II engagement will be mainly for the record. But if the issue is forced back onto the agenda, don't rule out more robust presidential leadership. That could happen by way of one or more of the following: the emergence of an Israeli partner; Israeli overreach, generating a crisis (for instance, if Operation "Pillar of Defense" becomes "Cast Lead II," which does not currently seem likely ); regional developments generating a crisis; or the Palestinians uniting to pursue a strategy for freedom that ends their self-marginalization (a "Palestinian Spring," if you like - and the idea of becoming a UN non-member observer state is only a very minor step in that direction ).

Third, Iran will be closer to the top of the reelected president's in-tray, and an issue on which Obama will likely be more willing to push back against his Israeli counterpart. In his election night victory speech in Chicago, the president reminded his audience that "a decade of war is now ending," and he did not add "may a new one begin." All options may be on the table, but the military one is distinctly not favored by Obama II. Diplomacy, even partially successful, will be the attempted antidote to Bibi's drumbeat of war. The Iran file is, however, where Netanyahu has been most effective to date at boxing the president in and limiting his room for maneuver. If Netanyahu does get his military moment in the Iranian sun, then expect Israel's lurch toward self-destruction to accelerate and the dictionary definition of "Pyrrhic victory" to be updated.

Finally, President Obama will continue to navigate the shifting geopolitics and earthquakes in the region with patience and pragmatism. But he will do so without a confidant in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office for as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is its occupant. Netanyahu is not considered insightful or trustworthy or a realist in interpreting and responding to regional developments. He is not exactly a useful ally, and launching the Gaza operation at such a tense regional moment will only embellish that conclusion. That is the verdict of many world leaders, and Barack Obama is unlikely to be an exception to the rule.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and is a fellow at the New America Foundation.