Bibi, Obama, and Israeli Elections

The perception that relations between the US and Israel, including the personal relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have enormous impact on domestic Israeli politics just won’t go away.

I’ve already argued that the notion that the status of US-Israel relations has a causal impact on Israeli policymaking and in Israeli elections is at best highly qualified. Still, all other things being equal, it’s certainly true that Israelis don’t want their leaders to be too much at odds with America; there is a deep sense that the US remains a very important ally for Israel.

But the argument now being pushed—that Bibi might call early elections because of fear of what Obama might do should he win the presidential election—takes the previous and plausible claim a bit too far beyond the realm of likelihood. In addition, there is little evidence for this contention.

Consider the points raised in defense of the argument. In the piece linked to above, Uri Friedman cites the Israeli financial paper Globes as the first piece of evidence. Yet that article contains a single line that “Netanyahu’s aides fear revenge by Obama against Netanyahu for supporting the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, throughout the campaign.” There is no sense here of which aides, how many, how this information was obtained, how it is balanced against other considerations, and so on.

In fact, there are so many other factors pointed to in both the Globes piece and elsewhere—but particularly the need to fend off potentially or increasingly strong rivals Ehud Olmert, Yair Lapid, Shelly Yachimovich, and Aryeh Deri, while both Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni continue to lurk in the background, waiting for an opportunity—that fear of Obama pales in comparison.

At the same time, polls indicate that Bibi’s political position vis-à-vis his competitors is at the moment very strong, though not impregnable. In other words, the time is right to strike to renew his popular mandate and retain the prime minister’s office.

The current focus on America as the motivator for Israeli politics is reminiscent of arguments many analysts promoted at the formation of the short-lived Likud-Kadima coalition in the spring. Since Iran was on the agenda at the time, many argued the coalition was about Iran. Others believed it was about the peace process, or about passing major new legislation. But there was little inclination to see Israeli politics for what they were: the normal (if crass and opportunistic) politicking of individuals with large egos trying to get or hold on to as much power as they could.

The rest of Friedman’s evidence is composed of: quotes from two columnists from Haaretz (Israel’s most left-leaning paper, normally full of articles opposed to the right-wing government’s policies). But neither quote lists any polling data or interviews with politicians or advisors on the issue of how Israelis might vote if Bibi were suddenly punished by Obama, or of him being afraid of a post-election Obama, or any proof that the US-Israel relationship has been damaged. Last, there is a quote from a piece in the Jerusalem Post that argues “Israel-US relations are already in need of some serious repair.” Perhaps, but again, no specific evidence of any potential outcome of this on the Israeli elections.

Finally, it bears mentioning that while Bibi has certainly antagonized Obama and other administration officials, and has been annoyed and angered in return, after moments of high drama and public clashes the two leaders have always settled their differences; indeed, evidence indicates that Bibi’s recent speech to the UNGA was just such a convergence on Iran.

In other words, it should be obvious that relations between the two countries will remain strained so long as both remain in power, but there’s no evidence Israeli elections will be decided or altered by Obama, that the structural foundations of the US-Israel relationship are cracked, or that Bibi is making decisions on the basis of what Obama might do. And the history of their personal relationship indicates the two will continue to try and patch up whatever holes might appear.

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