The limits of U.S. influence in Israel
A victory in Tuesday’s Israeli elections by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Yisrael Beiteinu alliance and the ascent of even more extreme parties are indications of Israelis’ continued move to the right.
It is also an indication of the limits and the challenges faced by the Obama administration in its relationship with Israel. Despite Netanyahu’s obvious preference for President Barack Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in the U.S. presidential elections — and a sense that he was intervening through proxies — Obama’s ability to influence the outcome of the Israeli elections has been negligible.
The Obama administration’s situation underscores the need for a quick decision about its policy toward whatever type of governing coalition emerges in Israel after the election. If Netanyahu forges a government with parties to his right, the White House should drop the pretense of possible peace negotiations and formulate policy accordingly: It can either produce a detailed peace plan or fall back on highlighting international law and human rights and the obligations of the parties that they entail.
Israelis were certainly aware of the tension between their prime minister and the U.S. president. Had they not been, the much-publicized report by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg about White House warnings of Israeli isolation drove the point home. Yet there is no indication that a dispute will have a significant impact on Israeli elections, since the right-wing parties that support the settlements are expected to do well. The question is: Why have the stated American opposition to Israeli settlements and subtle attempts at influencing Israeli opinion been ineffective?
In the past, Israelis reacted to threats of worsening relations with the United States by punishing those politicians viewed as responsible — as happened in the defeat of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir after his confrontation with President George H. W. Bush in 1992. But it now seems that Israelis have grown to take the U.S. relationship for granted. There is clear evidence of this from the polls.
In a poll I conducted in Israel with the Program for International Policy Attitudes after the U.S. presidential elections, fielded by Israel’s Dahaf Institute, most Israelis said they believed the tension between Netanyahu and Obama would not affect the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Sixty percent of Israelis said “the personal relationship” between Obama and Netanyahu would “not make much difference” to American support for Israel, and those who predict that the relationship will increase support (23 percent) substantially outweighed those who said it would diminish support (11 percent). This was so despite the fact that 6 in 10 Israelis felt that Netanyahu supported Obama’s opponent in the November elections.
Perhaps more telling were the results of another poll I conducted, also with Dahaf, after the Israeli government’s decision to approve settlement construction in strategic areas around east Jerusalem — a move that garnered global condemnation, including from Washington, and warning Israel not to carry out its plans.
When asked, “What do you believe the American reaction would be if Israel does not reverse its recent decision regarding the settlements?” a majority of Israelis — 63 percent — said the U.S. would do nothing, while 12 percent said it would actually increase its support for Israel. Only 20 percent said Washington would punish Israel.
There are many reasons why these attitudes have taken hold over the years, since most Israelis understand that the U.S.-Israel relationship goes far beyond the attitudes of the White House. But nothing is more responsible than what happened in Obama’s first term.
Faced with an American president demanding a freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, many of Netanyahu’s critics in Israel warned of danger to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. In response, Netanyahu made the case that the relationship would not be affected.
Ultimately, Obama backed down. Instead of Israel paying a price, Netanyahu received multiple standing ovations in the U.S. Congress during his May 2011 visit to Washington.
The Obama administration will have to make decisions about Israel early in his second term ‑ and these can be informed by the mistakes of the first term. Obama entered the White House with a right-wing Israeli government headed by Netanyahu. The president was determined to push for Arab-Israeli peace and appointed former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy almost immediately.
The effectiveness of the president’s early demand for a freeze on Israeli settlement building was always a function of whether a Netanyahu government was capable of making a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians. The Obama administration kept its options open, hoping for the best. But it should have been clear that Netanyahu had a choice for his coalition between joining with the centrist Kadima party or parties to his right — and he chose the latter.
This seeming open-mindedness of the Obama administration doomed its settlement policy. U.S. diplomacy was focused on trying to use the settlement freeze demand while it was also trying to persuade a seemingly unpersuadable Israeli government to engage in serious negotiations. But the absolute freeze demand was more suitable as a tool of stressing issues of principle, legitimacy and international law — once the White House had concluded that Netanyahu was not serious.
Even for those who doubted the wisdom of the U.S. insistence on a settlement freeze, it should have been clear that, once the administration took that position, it was ill-advised to back down. That reversal had far-reaching ramifications for Obama’s credibility ‑ not only among Israelis and Arabs but also around the world, especially in Europe.
In Obama’s second term, the Arab-Israeli issue will likely be a lower priority for the administration in the early days. But it will surely impose itself on the White House agenda through a likely eruption in the Palestinian territories, more settlements or through inevitable linkage with the looming Iranian nuclear issue.
The administration would do well to make a quick early decision: Is the next Israeli government capable of making the types of concessions needed for a serious deal with the Palestinians?
If Netanyahu moves to form another government with partners to his right, the United States should assume that serious negotiations are not possible and form its policy accordingly. Surely, the prospects of progress will also depend on the Palestinians, who remain divided, and on other Arabs. But no progress is likely if center-left Israeli politicians only watch from the sidelines.
PHOTO (Top): Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to a man wearing a sticker for Netanhyahu’s campaign in Tel Aviv January 14, 2013. REUTERS/Nir Elias
PHOTO (Insert): An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, north of Ramallah January 22, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner