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.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Mitt Romney met with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem July 29. Op-ed contributor David Andrew Weinberg says 'one of Netanyahu’s private goals may be to shape the US presidential election' in favor of Mr. Romney, with whom he has a 'longstanding connection.' This meddling 'could complicate the foreign policy debate on the campaign trail and have repercussions for future diplomacy between the United States and Israel.'

Some observers claim that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to tip the scales against President Obama in the elections this November. Judging by his recent behavior – and based on my own research about how such efforts have played out in other settings – these accusations are probably correct.

The realization that Mr. Netanyahu may be meddling in the American presidential elections could complicate the foreign policy debate on the campaign trail and have repercussions for future diplomacy between the United States and Israel.

At the start of this month, Mr. Netanyahu suddenly began pushing for Washington to lay down new “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear program. He also warned on Sept. 11 that nations that fail to do so “don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."

Next, anonymous Israeli sources (and reportedly Netanyahu himself) suggested that Mr. Obama was snubbing Israel’s leader by refusing to meet during the UN General Assembly.

Despite an immediate effort by President Obama to soothe tensions through a late-night phone call to Netanyahu, the prime minister then went on Sunday talk shows to tell the American people that their president was not being tough enough on Iran.

Netanyahu’s dogged efforts to highlight small gaps between the Obama administration’s position and his own have prompted accusations that he seeks to help elect his old friend Mitt Romney. Observers who accuse him of meddling include veteran columnists with the The New York Times, the New YorkerTime Magazine, and Ha’aretz, as well as Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz.

Meanwhile, other expert commentators believe that Netanyahu’s actions are not aimed at electoral interference. Netanyahu himself felt pressed to reassure observers that “I’m not going to be drawn into the American election.”

The problem with authoritatively trying to prove or disprove such accusations right now is that practitioners of partisan intervention have strong incentives at the time to deny their true intentions, casting their support for favored politicians in terms of policy issues instead of personal preference.

In my own studies of partisan intervention in the US-Israel relationship, I have found that it can take years before participants feel comfortable admitting their true intentions. Indeed, I was only recently able to get former American officials on record – and declassified archives confirming – that President George H. W. Bush pursued a determined, conscious campaign in 1992 to get pro-peace candidate Yitzhak Rabin elected Israel’s prime minister.

Still, the current case is brimming with indicators that one of Netanyahu’s private goals may be to shape the US presidential election. For one, he has a fraught relationship with the incumbent and a longstanding connection with the challenger.

What seems to be a manufactured crisis over Obama refusing to meet him at the UN is especially telling. This sort of “snub diplomacy” is a classic feature in many past cases of partisan intervention.

For instance, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Madeleine Albright all floated stories about refusing to meet Netanyahu or his deputies as part of their effort to turn Israeli opinion against the Israeli leader in 1999, hoping to make clear he had lost favor in Washington.

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.

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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