Israeli elections a victory for the Obama administration

Of all its alliances, the USA’s bond with Israel is perhaps its most frequently trumpeted and most controversial. Observers in the rest of the west often view the relationship cynically but, in recent times, it has seemed that the Obama administration has chosen to rather distance itself from Israel.

Famously, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu (re-elected for a third term on Tuesday) and Barack Obama have a tense relationship. Obama was overheard sympathising with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s description of Netanyahu as a “liar” during the 2011 G-20 Cannes summit, whilst Netanyahu is much friendlier with vice-president Joe Biden than he is with Obama; this is without even mentioning that he is on very chummy terms with Mitt Romney.

So, are we seeing a new phase in American-Israeli relations? Has the re-election of both Obama and Netanyahu led to an inevitable reconfiguration?

Of course it hasn’t. You will all be relieved to know that Israel and the United States are going to carry on being best friends for a good long while to come, a cosy blossoming in no small part the result of Tuesday’s elections. Certainly, Netanyahu has been re-elected but his position has clearly been weakened by the results, in which his Likud party lost eleven seats.

The coalition government that he forms for this, his third term in office, will, by necessity, be a far more centrist one than in previous terms. Some were predicting these 2013 elections to result in triumph for the right-wing parties, but in the event votes were clustered around the central zone of Israeli politics, largely because voters were encouraged to cast their vote based on economic and social issues more than on the ever-tense situations with Iran and Palestine. Netanyahu’s approach to foreign policy has, crucially, not been disapproved of by the Israeli population, but nor has he been given the strong mandate for action that many onlookers may have feared.

Re-elected for his third term in office, Benjamin Netanyahu. ©US State Dept. ; Image credit: US State Dept.

There has then, it would seem, been no serious upheaval in Israel, as there has not been with the re-election of Obama in the United States. The Israeli elections suggest a general apathy from many with regard to the Palestinian situation. There is not enough of a consensus for Netanyahu to take any bold action, something that plays into the hands of the Obama administration. The continuing gentle pressure for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will surely come from new Secretary of State John Kerry, and Netanyahu will not have the wiggle room to rock the boat on the subject. He has little chance of breaking out of the corner he found himself in through the Bar-Ilan speech of 2009, when he, for the first time, accepted that a two-state solution may be the way forward, albeit one that was, predictably, wholly realised on Israeli terms.

Netanyahu’s lack of breathing space when it comes to Palestine is largely down to the Iranian situation. It is getting to make or break time over the Iranian nuclear issue, and Obama and Netanyahu will need each other if they are going to coordinate a peaceful solution to the quarrels surrounding it. This leaves the ball almost entirely in Obama’s court.

He can determine the character of the American-Israeli relationship for the rest of his time in office, leaving Netanyahu with a headache and Obama with his world-famous big wide grin on his face.



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