The Obama – Netanyahu Feud: What it means for US-Israeli Relations for the Next Two Years
Although National leaders have favorite foreign leaders that they prefer to deal with, it is an adage that a national leader doesn’t visibly support one leader during an election. First, few countries acquiesce to foreign intervention in their elections. Second, it is unwise to make your country or yourself an issue in the campaign. And finally, the person you opposed may end up being the winner and you will have no leverage with them.
Obama proved the wisdom of that adage this week. His visceral dislike of the Israeli Prime Minister turned an election that could have revolved around economic issues (where Netanyahu is weak) into a popularity contest between Netanyahu and Obama. Obama clearly lost. And, in losing, he also lost great deal of leverage with either Netanyahu or the Palestinians, who know that Obama will be unable to push the Israelis into a negotiated deal for a Palestinian state.
To most observers Obama had made it clear that he would do anything to defeat Netanyahu. His State Department was accused of funneling money to the Netanyahu opposition (Zionist Union) through the Middle East Partnership Initiative. Political insiders now have revealed Obama’s team mobilized in Israel from the moment Netanyahu called the election back in December. This was long before Boehner had extended the invitation to Netanyahu to address the joint session of Congress. Instead of officially going to work for Zionist Union, they signed on with V-15, the shadowy anti-Netanyahu organization.
However, Obama overplayed his hand. At the last minute the resentment against Obama’s blatant interference in the Israeli elections played into the hands of Netanyahu and parties of the right. The polls turned Sunday night ahead of the Tuesday election. In response, the Zionist Union blinked and showed weakness by suddenly dropping Tzipi Livni from her share of the top of the ticket.
“It’s quite possible, even reasonable, that the White House had no strategy for the Israeli elections, but if its goal was to hurt — or least not help — Netanyahu, then it erred,” said Mark Mellman, a strategist for Democratic Senate minority leader Harry Reid who worked for Yesh Atid during the campaign. “Raising the stakes on his congressional address through a series of cold shoulders only enhanced Netanyahu’s standing with his constituency.”
Mellman wrote on the Washington website The Hill that Likud supporters were “delighted to see [Netanyahu] stand up to President Obama, and the tougher it got for him, the more that 23 percent cheered — and moved into his corner.”
The end result – Netanyahu won, Obama lost. Now what?
Clearly relations between the two nations are at a new low, not just in terms of disagreement on policy but in a personal vitriol unseen before. For instance, while President George H. W. Bush refused to fund the building of new settlements, the disagreement never impacted the working relationship.
Since the relations between the White House and Israel are so poisoned, how will the relationship evolve in the next two years? Clearly, they will both play towards their political strengths.
The Obama Strategy
Obama has clearly lost power in this struggle. Not only has he lost any influence with the Netanyahu government, he is losing the popularity contest between the two of them in the US. A Gallup poll taken earlier this month, before his speech before Congress showed Netanyahu’s favorability rating among the US public is at a near-record high.
The results of the poll showed that tension with the President Barack Obama administration over his scheduled address to Congress on Tuesday has not harmed his image with the American public, and Americans see him about as favorably today as they did at any of the six measurements Gallup has taken since 1996.
The most recent poll found that 45 percent of the American public views Netanyahu favorably, a statistical tie with his 1998 rating – when 46% had a positive opinion of him – and 10 percentage points more than in 2012. Asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Netanyahu, another 24% said they viewed him unfavorably.
According to the poll, there are sharp party differences regarding Netanyahu, with the Republicans much more likely to view Netanyahu positively (60%) than negatively (18%), while Democrats are evenly divided: 31% favorable and 31% unfavorable.
Among independents, 45% have a favorable view of Netanyahu, while 23% view him unfavorably.
By comparison Obama’s ratings with American voters are usually in the low 40s.
The other problem is that in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans are clearly siding with Netanyahu on the issue of negotiations with Iran. Congress is set to vote on a bill forcing Obama to submit the Iran nuclear deal to Congress, where there appear to veto proof majorities in both the House and Senate.
This means that in terms of differences between Israel and Obama, he can’t count on support from Congress or the American people.
This leaves the United Nations as his best option.
Obama said at a news conference on Tuesday that the US is considering the possibility of supporting the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state through the United Nations. Late last year, the US voted against a Palestinian-initiated resolution in the UN Security Council that called for a Palestinian state with borders based on the pre-1967 lines. The measure garnered eight affirmative votes among the 15-member Security Council, falling just one short of the nine votes it needed to pass.
This threat to go to the UN is similar to the threat issued last week to take the Iran nuclear deal to the UN rather than press for congressional approval. However, as with the Iranian deal, there are problems with that route.
Although Obama can order his ambassador to the UN to vote for recognizing Palestine and even extend American recognition of a Palestinian state, there are problems that go much further – problems that can only be resolved with congressional assistance.
A UN vote might lead to international recognition of Palestine, but a Congress upset at the move may very well decrease its contributions to the UN – a move that would be politically popular. And, as we noted before in regards to Iran, recognition would not mean an embassy or an ambassador, because they both require congressional approval.
There are also laws in place that restrict what can be done for Palestine as long as they refuse to recognize Israel. These would need to be repealed by a Congress that is held by pro-Israel Republican Party. And, as Obama’s time in office shrinks, his political power to hold Democrats in line decreases.
The Netanyahu Course
Netanyahu clearly has an advantage over Obama at this time. Not only is he more popular than Obama in the US, he will likely be Prime Minister long after Obama has left the White House.
However, Netanyahu can’t afford to overplay his hand. He can’t expect uncritical support and can see his rating inside the US drop as they did last year during the Gaza invasion. His political power inside the US rests on an unsteady foundation that requires striving for a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians.
That could be seen after his election win as he took a more conciliatory position by stating that he is not opposed to a Palestinian state. Israel also announced it is freezing construction of 1,500 new housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, beyond the Green Line, despite Netanyahu’s election eve declaration that building in Jerusalem would continue regardless of international pressure.
Planning officials familiar with the details of the plan told the Israeli media that the program is not being advanced due to the political sensitivity and that there had been no approval from the Netanyahu’s office to hold the planning discussions.
Freezing the construction is also a clear reminder to Obama that the downward spiral of relations could have a bigger impact – especially if Obama decides to vote for Palestinian recognition in the UN.
Netanyahu clearly has some advantages in his feud with Obama. He has overwhelming support in Congress, amongst both Republicans and Democrats. He has a level of popularity in the US that currently exceeds Obama. And, as an Israeli who has lived for long periods of time in the US and speaks American English fluently, he can “go over Obama’s head to the American People.”
What we are seeing is a temporary relationship that is evolving to meet the current political needs. Undoubtedly, it will move on January 20, 2017, when a new president takes office.
Obama and Netanyahu may dislike each other, but they also need each other. Netanyahu would prefer US support at the UN. To that degree, the Israeli PM will temper any moves against Hamas or the PA. He will also delay additional building, knowing that if Obama takes any anti-Israeli moves, he can start the building immediately.
The Iranian nuclear deal is also a situation that will require some cooperation. Obama knows that the chances of congressional approval of any deal will be impossible without Israeli acquiescence. On the other hand, Israel knows that merely standing in the way of a deal would be bad and could hamper US support.
Ironically, some optimists contend that both of these issues could make a Palestinian deal easier, even though Obama has said that such a deal is unlikely. Obama needs some diplomatic breakthrough that he can use as a legacy. Netanyahu needs a deal in order to keep his US popularity high. He also needs something to bring to the table in order to stop the Iranian deal. A move towards settling the Palestinian problem is something Netanyahu could offer in lieu of a so –called bad Iranian nuclear deal.
Realistically, that is probably unlikely given the bad blood between the two leaders.
In the meantime, expect Netanyahu to start looking forward to a new president. Traditionally presidential candidates make pilgrimages to Israel for photo opportunities and informal meeting with Israeli leadership. Netanyahu will undoubtedly look for the one most favorable to his positions.
No wonder that Senator Ted Cruz announced his support for Israel the same time he announced he was running for president. “Instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel,” he said. The conservative Christian segment of the GOP is strongly pro-Israel.
Although Netanyahu will probably follow the adage of not overtly picking a favorite presidential candidate, Jewish organizations in the US like AIPAC will be sure to let American voters know who they prefer. However, chances are that whoever is picked will have a better relationship with the Israeli Prime Minister than Obama.
Our Unrealistic Foreign Policy
By Christopher A. Preble
March 23, 2015
US foreign policy is crippled by a dramatic disconnect between what Americans expects of it and what the nation’s leaders are giving them. If U.S. policymakers don’t address this gap, they risk pursuing a policy whose ends don’t match with the means the American people are willing to provide. What is our foreign policy? Leadership. That word appears 35 times in President Obama’s latest National Security Strategy. His predecessors have all wanted the same thing, although most managed to work in a few more synonyms. At the dawn of the post-Cold War era, officials in the George H.W. Bush administration aspired for the United States to be the sole global power. Now that the nation’s long-time rival had disappeared, the object of U.S. foreign policy, according to an early draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, was to “prevent the re-emergence of a new rival” capable of challenging U.S. power in any vital area, including Western Europe, Asia, or the territory of the former Soviet Union. To accomplish this task, the United States would retain preponderant military power, not merely to deter attacks against the United States, but also to deter “potential competitors” — including long-time U.S. allies such as Germany and Japan — “from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.”
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 24, 2015
Syria’s civil war hasn’t gone away, but to many, it has suddenly become less urgent. The chaos unfolding in Yemen has drawn international energy and attention away from the conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year. Compared to Syria, Yemen’s neighbors see fewer battle lines and much greater proximity, alongside the same Iranian hand. Yemen also gives the impression of being easier, since 10 million people have not been forced from their homes. But the parties in Yemen are not nearly exhausted, and a flood of armed support to Yemen likely means the problem will get much worse before it gets better. And all this will happen as the other wars continue to rage around the region.
The Recurring Rise and Fall of Political Islam
By Paul Salem
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 25, 2015
For political Islamic groups, the past four years have been the best of years and the worst of years. In this period, the Arab world’s oldest and largest political Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), had its biggest ever victory in its homeland of Egypt, followed a year later by its biggest defeat. In the same period, a jihadi-salafi group, the Islamic State group (ISG), conquered large swaths of these two countries and announced the establishment of the Islamic State and the restoration of the caliphate in the person of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This hyperradical jihadi proto-state attracted an international fringe of radical fighters. But it caused a revulsion among majorities throughout the Arab world and triggered the establishment of an international and regional military coalition against it. Other non-jihadi salafi groups formed political parties and joined the political process after the Arab uprisings and are trying to navigate the troubled waters between the MB and the jihadi radicals.
Missed Opportunity: The Politics of Police Reform in Egypt and Tunisia
By Yezid Sayigh
March 17, 2015
Police forces and security agencies genuinely accountable to democratically elected civilian authorities have not emerged in either Egypt or Tunisia four years after popular uprisings forced the countries’ longtime leaders from power. Ministries of interior remain black boxes with opaque decisionmaking processes, governed by officer networks that have resisted meaningful reform, financial transparency, and political oversight. Until governments reform their security sectors, rather than appease them, the culture of police impunity will deepen and democratic transition will remain impossible in Egypt and at risk in Tunisia.
An Ugly Double Standard For Israel
By Lawrence J. Haas
American Foreign Policy Council
March 24, 2015
President Barack Obama’s vow to reassess U.S.-Israeli relations after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign remarks about a Palestinian state showcases his badly skewed views of Israel, its conflict with the Palestinians, its Arab neighbors and the true sources of regional instability. “We take him at his word,” Obama said of Netanyahu’s promise, which he walked back after his electoral victory, that a Palestinian state won’t come to pass on his watch, “and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.” Never has one sentence, which comes from Obama’s interview, last week with the Huffington Post, highlighted so clearly the ugly double standard to which the president subjects Israel as compared to its neighbors.
The Taliban Resurgent: Threats to Afghanistan’s Security
By Lauren McNally and Paul Bucala
Institute for the Study of War
The success or failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has reached a critical juncture. Newly appointed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on February 21, 2015 that the United States is considering a number of changes to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, including slowing the drawdown timetable and rethinking the U.S. counter-terrorism mission. On March 16, 2015, anonymous U.S. officials confirmed that the United States is likely abandoning its plans to cut the number of U.S. troops to 5,500 at the end of the year. The United States could allow many of the 9,800 troops in Afghanistan to remain beyond 2015. A visit by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to Washington, DC from March 22-25, 2015 is intended to discuss these issues.
Will Museum Terrorist Attack Derail Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy?
By Haleh Esfandiari and Jason Brodsky
March 19, 2015
A terrorist attack at a museum in Tunisia’s capital on Wednesday killed 20 people, 18 of them foreign tourists, and sent shockwaves worldwide. Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring. It became the symbol of what the revolutions in other Arab countries could have become–and the envy of people in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Tunisia made a peaceful transition from autocracy. It held democratic elections that resulted in a peaceful transfer of power from the Islamist Ennahda Party to the secular Nida Tunis Party. A new constitution guaranteed the rights of all citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or gender. The outside world saw Tunisia as an island of stability and success. With revolutionary turmoil ended, tourists were returning and foreign investment was trickling in. The future looked promising. But it’s clear now that something was not right.
How Russia Views the Iran Nuclear Talks
By Anna Borshchevskaya
March 12, 2015
Diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 nations — the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, and Germany — are rushing to conclude a nuclear agreement before the self-imposed March 24 deadline. While many details remain unavailable, the technical debate largely centers around the “sunset clause” under which international limitations on Iran’s uranium enrichment program would expire after a set time period, with some constraints perhaps lifted earlier to reward good behavior. Critics — most prominently Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — argue that rather than preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons, such a deal could put it on a path to reaching that capability legally.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor