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?
This puzzle is made more acute by the consensus that Israelis — both the public and virtually all politicians—view the relationship with Washington as their most crucial strategic priority.
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.