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Israel's coming test for Obama

He must be alert to bullying by Israel's likely next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Walter Rodgers / December 16, 2008

Oakton, Va.

President-elect Barack Obama could be surprised to discover that the first foreign policy challenge he faces may not come from traditional adversaries, such as Iran or Russia, but from a perceived friend, Israel.

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If the Likud candidate for prime minister, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, wins February elections in Israel – and polls now heavily favor his party – Mr. Obama may find that this ally can be very prickly. Recall Jimmy Carter's difficulties with Menachem Begin and George H.W. Bush's troubles with Yitzhak Shamir. Early in his presidency, George W. Bush apparently decided the best way to get along with Israelis was to unashamedly accommodate Israel, regardless of collateral consequences to US foreign policy.

Mr. Netanyahu, who has already served a term as Israel's prime minister, has a history of political confrontation. He may decide to challenge Obama early on, as he did with Bill Clinton. Domestically, it would be easy because during the election, many Israelis viewed Obama skeptically, and still do. Some whispered that he was pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab.

Netanyahu became famous for his early opposition to the US-backed peace platform of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres. He was elected in 1996 after a series of suicide attacks that killed scores of innocent Israelis.

On election night, when results came in, Netanyahu's Likud partisans were celebrating victory amid cheers of "we beat them, we beat them, we beat Labor." Netanyahu reportedly put a different spin on the celebratory chants, reminding his supporters that the more significant victory was the one over Washington's ability to dictate the terms of Middle East peace.

Educated in America, Bibi's fluency in English – married to his earlier hard-line anti-Palestinian rhetoric – made him the darling of right-leaning American Jews, as well as some Evangelical Christians. The latter looked at him and concluded he was one of them.

Actually, Bibi has shown he's a super-Israeli nationalist and has not demonstrated any great fondness for America except as it accommodates his interest in "Greater Israel." His policy previously and now seems to be maintenance of the status quo, thus avoiding any difficult decisions requiring him to cede land to Palestinians.