Benjamin Netanyahu might have made a good poker player, but I think only if he had a consistently strong hand. He has now settled on January 22 as the date for the Israeli election, which is only two days after the inauguration of the American president. At first glance this might seem like a gamble, coming at the same time as the American election and the very public reminder of who won it. But on closer consideration, it’s less of a risk than might be assumed.
In the first place, of course, Bibi had little choice: by the time he called the it most parties were already anticipating an election and showing no interest in serious discussions over the budget; and without a budget, there was little choice but an election.
The big concern is that the American presidential campaign might play a role in the Israeli election. It will surely be used as a stick his opponents will use to hit Bibi with, but as I’ve argued before, America and the relationship with Israel are only one of multiple factors Israelis take into account when voting. The multiple polls suggesting the center-left and left parties gaining on Likud and the right aren’t based on foreign policy issues, but domestic socio-economic and political ones.
Beyond this, although the results will be known while Israel still has about two and a half months left in its campaign, it doesn’t matter for Bibi (the likeliest prime minister) who wins the US election.
Assuming Barack Obama wins: Bibi has already publicly told Israel about his reconciliation to pressure from the Obama administration not to attack Iran any time soon. Unless he is planning a sudden, secret attack, he has taken the Iran-US president link out of the electoral equation. Obama and Bibi have had their public disputes, but they’ve also had public reconciliations, supplemented by Israeli government officials making very public declarations of Obama’s support for Israel. At the same time, the lame duck session in the US between November 7 and January 23 combined with Israel’s focus on its own election means very little, if any, American pressure can be put on Bibi regarding his foreign policy, removing a potential source of conflict on which Bibi’s rivals might build. Polls also indicate Israelis think Obama doesn’t like Israel much; they won’t then turn around and not vote for Bibi to placate Obama. And they don’t want Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, or Yair Lapid as prime minister to improve relations with the US.
Assuming Mitt Romney wins: Apart from a general perception that he might be more open to giving Israel a free hand in its foreign policy than Obama, there isn’t much known about him in Israel. While Romney continues to hammer at Obama for creating “daylight” between the US and Israel, it’s harder to point to concrete real-world consequences of this. Moreover, Romney has already walked back a number of the positions he’d taken to differentiate himself from Obama, including on Iran. But if Romney does win, Bibi’s rivals won’t be able to accuse him of endangering the US-Israel relationship since the assumption is that Romney is already more “pro-Israel” and believes in Bibi’s right to do whatever he needs to in order to protect Israel.
The narrative (promoted primarily in Republican circles) that Israel will have to deal with either its nemesis or its savior doesn’t fit Israeli electoral considerations as they play out. The possibility that the time lag between the US presidential election and the Israeli election might be used by Bibi’s competitors to attack him is neutralized by other factors.