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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.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
A girl casts her mother's ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station in the northern Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin on Tuesday.

Elections can sometimes lead to new beginnings and bold initiatives, but few Middle East experts expect a rosy hue to suddenly color US-Israel relations after Tuesday’s national elections in Israel.

Two key reasons explain why recent tensions in relations are likely to continue, analysts say: differences over the approach required to further Arab-Israeli peace on the one hand, and what some anticipate as a coming clash over Iran and its advancing nuclear program.

A third factor is less clear-cut: what the election results will mean for relations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barak Obama.

Exit polls in Israel indicate that Mr. Netanyahu has won a new if narrow mandate in Tuesday’s voting. Netanyahu has already had uneasy relations with Mr. Obama, who has just begun a second four-year term. Experts will be looking to the makeup of Netanyahu’s new governing coalition and his choice for foreign minister as indications of how much personal friction will persist.

In the meantime, the Israeli electorate has shifted farther to the right on the question of reaching peace with the Palestinians, Israel experts say.

The result is a formula for what are likely to be more rough days ahead for the relationship.

Surveys taken Tuesday afternoon suggested more Israelis went to the polls than anticipated. Exit polls suggested that Netanyahu, while still heading the largest party in the Knesset, could end up working with a weakened coalition and less solid support than he had anticipated.

The exit polls also indicated parties demanding a fresh approach be taken with the Palestinians were doing better than anticipated. But most analysts believe Netanyahu will be faced with an Israeli electorate that sees little chance for peace with the Palestinians – and which perceives the tumult in Israel’s neighborhood as a moment to batten down the hatches, not launch new initiatives.

Israelis feel like they’re in a category 5 hurricane, given events in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, says David Makovsky, a senior fellow and director of Middle East peace process studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). And in today’s Israel, “If you face a passing hurricane, you hunker down,” he says.

That contrasts with the US view, he adds, which is that “if you face a permanent hurricane, you can’t survive by hunkering down.” In other words, you have to move forward.

Mr. Makovsky, who spoke at a recent Washington event on the Israeli elections, notes that recent polls show a solid two-thirds of Israeli Jews see “no chance” for progress toward peace with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future.

“There’s been a move to the right” on the Palestinian issue, he says. That shift can be seen in how the left-of-center Labor Party largely dropped peace and other foreign-policy issues from its campaigning, he says, and in the rise of the right-wing Jewish Home party and its leader, Naftali Bennett, who advocates annexing much of the West Bank while opposing creation of a Palestinian state.

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.

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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