Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started the process of dissolving his government coalition to bring about new elections in March of next year. One needn’t be a particularly close observer of politics to know that President Barack Obama doesn’t much like Netanyahu. Will Obama try to interfere with the Israeli election?

Akiva Eldar, a left-wing columnist for Ha’aretz, argues in Al-Monitor that, yes, Obama should make it clear that he prefers any candidate to the incumbent.

Some of President Barack Obama’s advisers came to the conclusion that the time had come to remind the Israelis who is the boss. They encouraged the president to set a detailed outline for a permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. They recommend that the process involve a fixed timetable for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 lines and the Arab Peace Initiative. According to the plan, a diet of “carrots” would be provided to the party that adopts the outline, and “sticks” would be the fate of the recalcitrant side. When the Israeli voter goes to the polling booth, he or she would know whether they vote for the carrot or the stick. The Palestinian leadership and public will also clearly envisage the end of the occupation, with the advantages that follow the end of it, vis-a-vis perpetuation of the conflict and the drawbacks involved. …

Obama, like Hillary Clinton, believes that the two-state solution is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and to realize the US interest of ending the conflict. Obama, unlike Clinton, is not worried that a potential confrontation with Israel’s right-wing government will adversely affect American voters. He can allow himself to incentivize Israeli voters to support parties that offer an alternative to the current government.

Eldar’s assessment ignores that it was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who refused to budge during the negotiations earlier this year. He ignores that Abbas agreed to a unity government with Hamas. It ignores that Arafat in 2000 and Abbas in 2008 refused peace deals when offered. But to a certain segment of the Israeli chattering class the reason that there’s no peace is because of the right-wingers currently in charge of Israel’s government.

A more sensible reading of Israel’s political landscape came from Jonathan Schanzer, director of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Schanzer writing in The New York Times argued:

The top priority is — and will be for the foreseeable future — preventing Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear weapon’s power. To achieve this, Israel will also need to continue to sound the alarm about the potential for an ill-advised deal between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-1 countries (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany). This has been a source of tension between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. …

Nor is it likely that the elections will change the prospects for Palestinian-Israeli peace. The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas appears to have decided to pursue the case for Palestinian statehood in international forums rather than through negotiations with Israel. Abbas’ support for the recent outbreak of violence in Jerusalem has also prompted much of the Israeli political spectrum to sour on further talks with him.

Schanzer correctly observes that Iran will be an “issue of contention for the next two years no matter who is prime minister.” More generally he concludes that “it will soon become clear that Israel’s fight for survival looks roughly the same under any leadership. It’s a tough neighborhood.”

Aaron David Miller, who, I suspect, has played a role in meddling in past Israeli elections takes a slightly different tack to Schanzer, but lays out three conditions that Obama needs to meet to make interference productive.

Obama’s relationship with Bibi is perhaps the most dysfunctional of any president-prime minister pair in the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Doubtless John Kerry, too, would like to see another Israeli leader with whom he could dance a real peace process.

Yet constraints against U.S. meddling abound. First, there’s the Republican-controlled Congress, which will be watching hawk-like for any such funny business. Second, there’s the absence of a clear and credible alternative to Bibi with whom the administration is close; and then there’s the matter of the lack of a big issue for such lobbying. The peace process is in a coma; and ISIS, Hamas, Assad, Hezbollah, and the Iranian mullahs make Israel look like the good guys. Finally, there’s Obama himself. He’s not Clinton. Does he really care? Do most Israelis trust him? Could he get away with a campaign that makes clear Bibi isn’t the right guy and candidate, but X is? I am betting on “no” to all three questions. Don’t even think about it, Mr. President.

According to a recent poll only 37% of Israelis believe that Obama is positive towards Israel. Perhaps more tellingly 65% of Israeli believe that America’s position in the Middle East has weakened since Obama came to power. In general it’s not a good idea for an Israeli leader to be viewed as uncooperative with the United States. But with Obama, I don’t think that’s a risk for Netanyahu. And like Miller, Israelis perception of Obama make it risky for him to try and meddle openly in the upcoming Israeli elections; it could well backfire.

Still it’s distinctly possible that even if Netanyahu is defeated relations between Israel and the United States won’t improve. Obama could listen to Eldar  and meddle in the Israeli elections, but whatever the results, Obama isn’t likely to be any friendlier to Israel after the election.

[Photo: Pete Souza / WikiCommons ]


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