Obama Win Stirs Israeli Worries Over PM’s Romney Support

November 08, 2012

by Scott Bobb

The re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama has focused attention on his sometimes tense personal relations with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made no secret of his leanings toward the president’s challenger.

The two leaders have on occasion disagreed over major Middle East issues and some Israelis are wondering about the future of their historically close ties with the United States.

A few hours after Obama was declared the winner of Tuesday’s presidential election, Netanyahu moved quickly to control any diplomatic damage.

He summoned the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, and publicly congratulated Obama on his victory.

“The security relationship between the United States and Israel is rock-solid and I look forward to working with President Obama to further strengthen this relationship,” Netanyahu said. “And I look forward to working with him to advance our goals of peace and security.”

In what was clearly a choreographed media event, Shapiro responded to Netanyahu in kind.

“The president has enjoyed the close security cooperation and the close coordination with you and your government in his first term and I know he looks forward to continuing it in his second term,” he said.

Israeli fears

The statements came amid fears of a deterioration in relations due to reported tensions and personal disaffection between Netanyahu and Obama.

Obama’s opponent in the presidential election, former Republican candidate Mitt Romney, is a personal friend of Netanyahu, and Netanyahu is known to believe that a Romney presidency would have boosted U.S. government support for Israel.

A professor at the Israeli Democratic Institute and Hebrew University, Gideon Rehat, said some of Netanyahu’s critics accused him of meddling in U.S. affairs and putting at risk the future security of the Jewish state.

“Because Netanyahu interfered in the elections, or that’s what the argument is, the personal relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama will be problematic,” Rehat said. “I’m not sure if it will influence the whole relations, but this is not a good start.”

Some analysts said that Obama in his final term would no longer fear powerful Israel supporters among Jews in America. That could boost U.S. pressure to re-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, they say.

The negotiations have been stalemated over Palestinian demands that the Israeli government stop building new settlements in the occupied West Bank and release political prisoners.

The Netanyahu government said it is willing to resume the talks, but without pre-conditions.

Analysts say U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush were able to push the peace process forward during their second terms by extracting difficult concessions from both sides.

Political columnist and Bar-Ilan University Professor Danny Rubinstein notes that Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party recently joined forces with the far-right Yisrael Beiteinyu party. He said that may stymie future Palestinian talks.

“That’s my wishful thinking, that [a second term] will help renew the peace process,” Rubinstein said. “But I’m not sure that Netanyahu can do it. If you go to negotiations you have to be ready to make concessions. Netanyahu is not ready to make any concessions. And his constituency is not ready to make concessions.”

Tensions over Iran

Iran is another source of irritation between Obama and Netanyahu.

There is great debate among Israeli officials over whether – and when – to attack Iran’s nuclear installations if Iran does not stop its alleged effort to make nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that time is growing short. The U.S. has asked Israel to be patient, though, to allow time for Western sanctions to force Iran to change course. Most analysts said this disagreement has largely eased in recent months.

Rehat said, however, that Obama’s re-election could become an issue as the campaign heats up for Israel’s national elections in January.

“The fact that Obama won will probably be used by people who challenge the Likud and Netanyahu,” Rehat said. “They will say the relationship with the United States is important to Israel. And that Netanyahu would not be fit for the job because he clearly supported Romney and Romney lost.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of presidential terms served by former President Jimmy Carter. VOA regrets the error.

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