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What Netanyahu's meddling in US election means for Obama, Romney, and diplomacy

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations General Assembly today, where he is expected to reiterate his demands that President Obama set 'red lines' for Iran. It appears Netanyahu is meddling in US presidential elections, fueling rifts with Obama to favor Mitt Romney.

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Another consonant sign of partisan interference is Netanyahu’s renewed interest in reaching out to the American people directly through their televisions. It is especially striking that Netanyahu still chose to take his grievances to the public after President Obama’s telephone call aimed at reconciliation.

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Bill Clinton reached out to the Israeli public in much the same way in July of 2000, immediately after the failure of negotiations at Camp David. At Ehud Barak’s request, he used an interview with Israeli TV to help stave off the collapse of Mr. Barak’s pro-peace government in Israel, pledging new concessions for its conduct at the summit and effusively praising Barak’s leadership role.

Netanyahu’s recent sound bites on Iran are already being featured in a million-dollar ad buy attacking Obama in Florida. The group distributing this ad, Secure America Now, is founded by a Republican strategist notorious for having a direct line to the prime minister, so Netanyahu was probably aware of how such remarks would be utilized by American conservatives.

It has also been widely reported that Netanyahu and Mr. Romney share some key benefactors, most notably Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson. The casino magnate has announced he may spend as much as $100 million this year to bring down Obama. He spent nearly twice that much launching a free, right-leaning newspaper in Israel that many see as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s confrontational, exasperated tone toward the Obama administration over Iran makes little sense from a diplomatic standpoint. The Israeli prime minister has already received an unprecedented commitment that Obama will never let Iran weaponize its nuclear fuel and will use force if necessary to ensure this promise. Unless Netanyahu is calling into question America’s ability or the president’s word, existing US promises should really be sufficient (if not completely satisfying from an Israeli perspective).

All of these factors suggest that Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to influence the upcoming American presidential election. This is a realization that poses both opportunities and challenges for the presidential campaigns on foreign policy.

Democrats could try to strike back against this controversial behavior by rallying nationalist sentiment against foreign intervention in the US election and accusing Romney of encouraging such meddling. (Netanyahu himself has appealed to his base by accusing Washington of meddling in some past Israeli elections.) However, this could be a risky tactic, since many Jewish American voters tend to view the Israeli premier quite favorably.

Similarly, Republicans could point to Netanyahu’s intentional vote of confidence for their candidate as a sign that Romney is ready for the world stage. However, such a gambit could also backfire by suggesting that Romney’s domestic standing alone is insufficient for getting him across the finish line.

Regardless of who wins in November, the American president is likely to remember Netanyahu’s conduct during this critical period. In the short term, the prime minister may or may not receive additional concessions from Washington on Iran.  But once Netanyahu faces his own elections in 2013, he will probably find himself on the receiving end of American intervention, either as retribution or reward.

At the very least, this episode should serve as a potent reminder that international alliances are often messier in practice than most politicians would like to admit. 

David Andrew Weinberg holds a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and serves as a non-resident fellow with the UCLA Center for Middle East Development. He formerly served as a staff member at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.


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