As Netanyahuis set to return to power, his relations with the Obama White House appear to reach a new low.
(Politico) – Barack Obama might have hoped for a leadership change that would reboot his poisoned relationship with Israel’s government. But he didn’t get it on Tuesday, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — thanks in part to a hard lurch right — appeared to make a dramatic comeback after trailing in pre-election polls.
As votes were counted Tuesday night, Netanyahu claimed a dramatic comeback victory. “Against all odds: A great victory for the Likud. A major victory for the Israeli people,” he posted on Facebook.
With more than 99 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud party had earned 30 seats in Israel’s Knesset to 24 seats for the center-left Zionist Union party led by his chief rival, Isaac Herzog. Netanyahu must still assemble a governing coalition to extend his rule, but the surprising margin — recent polls showed Likud pulling as few as 21 seats — should make that feasible.
The results appeared to be a harsh blow to Democrats who consider the Israeli leader tantamount to a partisan rival — particularly since Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress arranged by Speaker John Boehner behind the Obama White House’s back. In Herzog, Obama officials saw a possible fresh start with Israel on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.
“They hate him, they should, and they’re praying that he is out of power,” said a former senior Obama administration official.
But if, as seems likely, those prayers aren’t answered, Netanyahu’s relations with Obama are likely to resume at their lowest point yet.
In the closing days of the campaign, Netanyahu seemed to reject his previous support for a Palestinian state, potentially dashing hopes for a renewed peace process still nurtured by Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials.
Netanyahu also cast himself as the target of foreigners — and while he was vague about the details, pro-Netanyahu media outlets often cited the role of former Obama campaign operative Jeremy Bird, who advised a grass-roots campaign organization that opposes Netanyahu. That group also partnered with the Washington-based OneVoice Movement, an international grass-roots group that supports the two-state solution and has taken State Department funding in the past.
And Netanyahu startled some U.S. observers when he cast the election in a racial light by ominously warning supporters on Election Day that Israeli Arabs were turning out in large numbers against him.
Netanyahu’s “scare tactics made the difference,” said Danny Ayalon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 2002 to 2006 under a Likud government. “He now holds all the cards,” Ayalon said, adding that the question is whether Netanyahu will lead a narrow conservative coalition or a broader national unity government.
Even with such details unsettled, some Washington conservatives expressed relief at the preliminary results.
“Sure loser: Obama,” tweeted Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, a major Netanyahu booster.
In particular, defending a nuclear deal with Iran would have been easier for Obama absent the protests of Netanyahu, who has warned Congress that Obama is striving for “a very bad deal” with Iran. Herzog also questioned the pending deal with Iran, but in more muted tones.
“Isaac Herzog has serious concerns about Iran’s intentions, but he supports the U.S. effort to negotiate a rollback of their nuclear program,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit foundation that has supported the nuclear talks, before the election results were known.
Perhaps the biggest question looming over a Netanyahu victory is how the Obama administration will react to the Israeli leader’s rejection of a Palestinian state; a day before the election, with his victory uncertain, when an interviewer asked whether he would oppose the creation of such a state while prime minister, Netanyahu said yes.
That would be a reversal of Netanyahu’s own stated position, as well a challenge to U.S. policy set in 2002 by President George W. Bush.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki seemed to downplay the remark Monday, saying that “there are many things said leading up to elections.”
Ayalon predicted that “Bibi will retract” the statement.
“He made the remarks as a candidate representing Likud,” he added. “As a prime minister, he represents the government. And that depends on the coalition he builds.”