Why the U.S. Shouldn't Intervene in Israel's Elections

This time, it will likely backfire.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller
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Obama and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, May 20, 2011.Credit: AP
Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

Israelis have been intervening in U.S. politics for years. So why shouldn’t the U.S. intervene in theirs? After all, America has an enormous stake in who leads the country of its closest ally in the Middle East, and there’s no doubt it has preferences. U.S. President Barack Obama would love to see the current Israeli prime minister replaced in March by someone more willing to support U.S. goals and policies. If that’s the case, why not act on those preferences?

Having been part of at least two previous U.S. administrations that tried to pick favorites, I can say with some authority that meddling with Israeli politics is a tricky and risky business. It requires both will and skill and a unique set of circumstances, none of which exists today. If the Obama administration is smart, it will resist the temptation either to intervene or create the impression that it is doing so.

There are some good reasons why.

The one time that the U.S. actually did succeed by meddling in Israeli politics it was part of a broader strategy set into motion well before Israeli elections were scheduled. The year was 1991 and the first Bush administration was involved in trying to put together the Madrid peace conference in the wake of the Gulf War. At the same time, then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were engaged in a tough wrangle with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over the terms of the conference, while the pushing back hard against the Israeli premier's settlements policy. Shamir was eager to acquire billions of dollars in housing loan guarantees from the United States, and by early 1992, the Bush administration was equally determined not to grant them, out of objection to Shamir's settlement policies and because granting them could give Shamir a political victory in what was shaping up to be an electoral contest with Yitzhak Rabin. Shamir lost the election partly because he was perceived to be mishandling Israel's relationship with the United States. Rabin was awarded the loan guarantees within months of his election.

The U.S. intervention worked then because the ground work had been laid well before the Israeli election campaign – the Madrid conference had produced some hope in the peace negotiations – and Rabin was a credible alternative.

The idea that six years into the Obama administration the president is suddenly going to go after Netanyahu and toughen up his rhetoric and action on either settlements or pro-Palestinian UN resolutions to show how badly the prime minister has handled relations with the U.S. strains credulity to the breaking point. Obama has had years to craft such an approach had he wanted to. To do it now would be so transparent and obvious an attempt to influence the election against Netanyahu that it could only backfire and strengthen the very forces that Washington wants to see weakened.

Let’s remember that even when Bill Clinton – beloved by Israelis in a way Obama is not – tried to intercede in the 1996 elections, which pitted Shimon Peres against Netanyahu, he failed. Clinton failed even though he had the added advantage of a martyred prime minister in Yitzhak Rabin and actual agreements in a real peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Other factors argue against any intervention. Next month, the Republicans will take over both houses of Congress; and the negotiators in the Iranian nuclear talks have pledged to reach a political agreement by March 1. Given how important that deal is to the Administration, the last thing the president wants and can afford is to create the impression in Congress – among Democrats too – that he’s intervening in Israel’s politics or elections. Indeed he’s going to need all the goodwill he can muster from Congress and the Israelis to create the political space and support for a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, should one be reached. And while getting rid of Netanyahu may be on the president’s Christmas wish list, a nuclear deal with Teheran is a much better prize.

Finally, in the two instances where Republican and Democratic Administrations (George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton) chose to play favorites, there really were favorites to play. Both Rabin and Peres had been prime ministers before and were part of Israel’s founding generation. Israeli politics was also much less fragmented then; and there were better prospects of governing coalitions that could actually make decisions. In Israeli politics today, on the other hand, there are a cacophony of voices and positions. The natural allies for the Obama administration would seem to be the center-left bloc of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. But can they actually form a coalition, let alone govern? Indeed there isn't an obvious favorite or strong politicians to back.

The best advice the Obama administration could get is to steer clear of the Israeli vote; stay out and let the Israelis decide for and by themselves. Israelis are already convinced their politics are a three-ring circus. We don't need to add a fourth, American ring.

Aaron David Miller is a former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State, who helped formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israel peace process.