By Jonathan Tobin
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His decision to accept House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint session has brought down on his head the scorn of the American political establishment and press. But all is not lost for Netanyahu. There may be no good solution to his dilemma with respect to the speech to Congress and little hope that the Obama administration will do the right thing with respect to Iran, he remains the most likely person to emerge from Israel’s March election as the next prime minister. Though some may think that would be an even bigger disaster for his country considering that administration sources are spreading rumors that President Obama will never again meet with Netanyahu, no one should think such an outcome will be the end of the alliance or even such bad news for the prime minister.
Though Netanyahu’s American supporters continue to defend the idea of him giving such a speech, there’s no way to sugarcoat what has become a disaster for Israel and the prime minister. The blunder has not only made it easier for President Obama to divert attention from his indefensible opposition to sanctions that would turn up the heat on Iran in the nuclear talks. It has also enabled the White House to rally Democrats to oppose more sanctions, causing some to say that they won’t even attend Netanyahu’s speech out of loyalty to the president. Joining the gang tackle, some in the press are floating stories about Ambassador Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s loyal aide and the person who helped cook up this fiasco with Boehner, being frozen out of future contacts with the administration.
But while, contrary to the expectations of some on the right, this hasn’t exactly boosted Netanyahu’s standing at home, neither has it caused his prospects for re-election to crash. Indeed, while his Likud Party seemed to be losing ground to the Labor-Tzipi Livni alliance that now calls itself the Zionist Camp, by the end of the week, polls showed that Netanyahu’s stock had gone up. A review of all the polls showed that Likud was either tied with Labor or edging slightly ahead.
More to the point, any way you look at the electoral math of the coming Knesset, finding a way for Labor leader Isaac Herzog to form a coalition, even one that isn’t particularly stable, seems highly unlikely.
Even if Herzog’s party manages to nose out Likud for the top spot in the March elections giving him the theoretical first shot at forming a coalition, his task seems impossible. A Labor-led coalition is theoretically possible but it would require the sort of coalition of not merely rivals but open enemies. Herzog must build his coalition with the joint Arab list – forcing him to rely on open anti-Zionists to form his “Zionist Camp” government – or the Ultra-Orthodox religious parties. It is impossible to imagine those two polar opposites serving together. But even if he eliminates one or the other, it’s equally difficult to see like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu or Yitzhak Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, working with the Arabs. It’s equally hard to imagine how Lapid or Meretz, Labor’s natural ally on the far left, co-exist with the religious parties or how either scenario for a coalition could last.
By contrast, it will be far easier for Netanyahu to assemble a coalition consisting of the parties of the right and the center even without the religious parties though it is highly likely that he would opt for a Cabinet that included the ultra-Orthodox this time, giving him yet another strong, albeit quarrelsome government to preside over.
Thus, the odds are that sometime this spring, Netanyahu will be sworn in for a fourth term as prime minister, much to the chagrin of his sparring partner in the White House. But if Obama won’t talk to Netanyahu and is even pledging as one anonymous White House source claimed, to be willing to make the prime minister pay a price for his effrontery in opposing him on sanctions, won’t that be terrible for Israel?
The short answer is that it certainly won’t make for a cordial relationship. But it’s hard to see how it will make things any worse than they have been for the last six years.
After all, Obama has been sniping at and snubbing Netanyahu and his country ever since he entered the presidency. Obama has tilted the diplomatic playing field in favor of the Palestinians, undermined Israel’s claims to Jerusalem in ways no predecessor had done and even cut off the resupply of ammunition during last summer’s war with Gaza out of pique at Netanyahu’s government.
But in spite of this, the all-important security relationship continued. What’s necessary for the alliance to function is that the Pentagon and Israel’s Ministry of Defense communicate regularly, not the president and the prime minister. The same goes for the two security establishments, that continue to work well together.
In fact, it might be a very good thing for the alliance if Obama were to refuse to meet Netanyahu for the remainder of his time in office. Only bad things tend to happen when the two, who openly despise each other, are forced to come together. It would be far better for both countries for the leaders to stay apart, enabling their underlings to do what needs to be done to ensure the security of both nations. Were Obama to try and take revenge on Israel by supporting the Palestinians in the United Nations, it would harm the U.S. as much, if not more than it would Israel.
Netanyahu also knows that whoever wins in 2016, with the possible and extremely unlikely exception of Rand Paul, any of the possibilities to be the 45th president will be friendlier to Israel than Obama.
The issue of Iran’s nuclear threat will continue to hang over Israel and the alliance and Obama’s push for détente with the Islamist regime is a genuine threat to the Jewish state’s security as well as to that of moderate Arab governments. But once the current arguments about sanctions subside, as they inevitably will, Israel will carry on and Obama’s enmity notwithstanding, it will survive. Even a fourth term for Netanyahu will not change that.