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Netanyahu's electoral weak spot

Benjamin Netanyahu would be an easy opponent in a game of poker, if his behaviour during the US election is anything to go by. The Israeli Prime Minister made no secret of which candidate he wanted to see in the White House. His open support for Mitt Romney was such that various members of his own government felt compelled to intervene to downplay perceptions of a rift with Barack Obama. Between Netanyahu challenging Obama publically to take a more aggressive stand against Iran, and Romney saying that he was insufficiently supportive of Israel, the message coming from the Republicans and Likud alike was that the US President was not doing enough.

Now that Obama has been elected for a second term, what does this mean for Israel? The question is of particular concern to Netanyahu as he gears up for his own national elections in January. Since the result of the US polls were announced on Wednesday, the Israeli Prime Minister has done some hasty backpedalling. On Wednesday, he held a televised congratulatory meeting with US ambassador to Israel Don Shapiro, saying that security relations between the two countries were "rock solid". On Thursday, he called Obama to congratulate him, pledging to "continue working together". The same day, he hit out at his critics, saying that they were making futile attempts to "stir up trouble between us and the United States".

These conciliatory moves have certainly not silenced his critics. Ehud Olmert, a former Prime Minister considering a political comeback, told Jewish leaders in New York that Netanyahu had tried to undermine the incumbent president. "This represents a significant breach of the basic rules governing ties between nations, made worse by the fact that these are allies like Israel and the United States," Haaretz newspaper quotes Olmert as saying. He reportedly alleged that Netanyahu got involved in the US election partly to satisfy Sheldon Adelson, the powerful tycoon who donated nearly $100m to the Republican campaign. According to the Jerusalem Post, Olmert said: "Netanyahu's behaviour in recent months brings up the question if Netanyahu has a friend in the White House, and I'm not sure."

Indeed, several political analysts have pointed out that Netanyahu's campaign now has a weak spot. As leader of the right-wing Likud-led bloc, the Prime Minister's campaign for re-election in January hinges on an aggressive national security strategy, particularly with regard to Iran's nuclear facilities and Palestine. In the past, he has confronted Obama publically on both issues. Apparent damage to the Prime Minister's relationship with the White House means that the opposition can question whether Netanyahu is really the best person to make decisions on national security and foreign policy.
In reality, though, how bad is the relationship between the two men? It is difficult to say. Certainly, they differ in their political opinions and there have been some public displays of tension. In a speech in September, Netanyahu said that those who were not ready to draw "red lines" with Iran over its nuclear programme had no "moral right" to prevent Israel from taking unilateral action. In May 2011, Obama called for a peace agreement with Palestine based on Israel's 1967 borders, which was not well received by Netanyahu. The two have also clashed over Israel's settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.

Despite right-wingers in the US claiming that Obama should be doing more for Israel, military aid of $3bn a year has continued unabated and despite criticising settlements and calling for the 1967 borders to be respected, nothing has been done to promote justice for the Palestinians. Indeed, Obama has been criticised internationally for not applying enough pressure to push forward the peace process. Some have speculated that as a second-term president, not bound by the need to seek re-election, he will be free to take firmer action and be harsher on Israel. But, three days into his second terms, that remains pure speculation. The Obama administration has done nothing to suggest that there will be a marked change of tone in its relations with Israel; it has stressed repeatedly the strength of the alliance. "The bonds between the United States and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad," said Obama in May 2011.

So is talk of a split nothing but hot air? It seems obvious that the two men don't like each other much, but that does not mean that the whole US-Israel alliance is at risk. However, the importance of US support to Israel is such that relations with the White House have, in the past, been a decisive electoral issue. Some have compared the tension between Obama and Netanyahu to the rift between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President George H W Bush over Israeli settlement construction in the early 1990s. In that instance, the disagreement prefaced Shamir being defeated in Israeli national elections. With Bibi still the strong favourite to win on 22 January, it doesn't look like the fall out will be anywhere near so dramatic; but the weak spot is there, and his opponents are unlikely to let it drop.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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