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Why elections in Israel may not bring better ties with US

Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have won a new, if narrow, mandate to lead Israel, and key disagreements remain: over Middle East peace, and how to deal with Iran's nuclear program.

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Robert Satloff, WINEP’s executive director, says Israel’s shifting views on the peace process make Netanyahu something of a “peacenik,” since he is the only prominent member of his Likud party who publicly supports reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority.

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For Americans to better understand Israelis’ shift on peace, Makovsky compares it to the rise of the tea party in Republican politics and the impact that had on a foreign policy middle-of-the-roader like former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who lost his primary battle last year to a more conservative candidate.

Other regional experts expect Israel’s shifting views to prompt Netanyahu to continue pushing ahead on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, despite the irritation that causes with the Obama administration.

Tensions over issues like settlements have some analysts calling relations between the two leaders the worst they’ve seen in decades. But even these pessimists say the importance of the US-Israel relationship and issues it touches – from turmoil in the Middle East to Iran – will keep it from breaking down.

Netanyahu is remembered for putting the world on notice at the United Nations last September over Iran’s nuclear program. He said Tehran was on track to cross a “red line” with its uranium enrichment program sometime in spring or early summer 2013. Israel would be compelled to act militarily, he warned, to stop Iran from reaching a point where it could “break out” and quickly build a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu’s red line won’t be far from Obama’s thoughts as he grapples with the Iranian nuclear issue, and whether or not some negotiated solution can be reached in the few months that remain before Netanyahu’s red line is crossed – or before Iranian elections are held in June.

Regional experts said last fall that a “window of opportunity” for big-power negotiations with Iran on curtailing its nuclear program would remain open perhaps through March. But many of those same experts now say they are perplexed that Iran seems to have gone silent on its willingness to join talks on its nuclear activities.

But experts also point to a near-absence of the Iran issue from Israel’s election campaign as a sign that Israelis are more concerned with domestic economic issues than with confronting Iran, and that they remain wary about air strikes on Iran that could lead to war.

That wariness about war with Iran could actually serve Obama’s purposes as he works with Netanyahu in the coming months on the Iranian challenge, some diplomatic experts say.

WINEP’s Makovsky says one clue as to how Netanyahu plans to approach both the Iran issue and relations with the US will come from whom he names as foreign minister.

Makovsky says he expects Netanyahu to name someone who won’t be out to “exacerbate the differences [with Washington] over Iran.” But he also says it could take most of February for Netanyahu to form a new government.


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