Why Netanyahu victory isn't likely to make US-Israel relations worse

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Obama don't see eye-to-eye on much. But there are ways for allies to get along even when their leaders don't.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington in 2013. Mr. Netanyahu scored a win in Israeli elections Tuesday.

It’s safe to say that President Obama was hoping for a different outcome in Israel’s election Tuesday – just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did little to hide his preference for Mitt Romney in the last American presidential election.

But Mr. Netanyahu will govern for an unprecedented fourth term that is likely to extend beyond Mr. Obama’s last day in office.

No one anticipates a sudden dissipation in the bad blood between the two leaders, nor that a relationship long deemed dysfunctional will suddenly transform into a happy marriage.

But a variety of constraints on both leaders suggest that United States-Israel relations aren’t likely to get worse, some diplomatic experts say. The US has had times when relations with other allies have degenerated, and they have recovered, at least to some degree.

In the meantime, the US and Israel could create channels that allow the states to work together in important ways while allowing the two leaders to avoid each other. That’s what happened between the US and France when Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac had widely divergent worldviews and little use for each other.

“It’s going to be a very heavy lift, given the history between these two leaders, but I think if we look at how relations got back on track between the US and France after the Iraq war, there is a lesson,” says Michael Singh, managing director specializing in US Mideast policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

In that case, the making up involved refocusing on vital mutual interests, including counterterrorism and national security issues. It was not carried out by the two leaders but by key aides, Mr. Singh says. “But what you did have was a commitment by the two leaders that this [repair of relations] was very important to do,” he adds.

Singh says he can “envision a channel being created” through which these “key aides” would perform the same task as those in the Franco-American case more than a decade ago: “preventing sharp policy differences from precluding cooperation between two close allies in areas of vital mutual interest.”

Obama’s pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran and Netanyahu’s campaign pledge never to allow creation of a Palestinian state while he is in office are two prime examples of the policy differences separating the two leaders.

But neither of these divisions is really new – suggesting that relations have little reason to worsen and might remain more or less the same for the remainder of Obama’s term, some experts say.

“It didn’t take Netanyahu’s reelection to convince anyone that while the Israeli-Palestinian process maybe wasn’t dead, it was frozen pretty hard, and no matter what happened [in the election] an Iran agreement appeared to be a done deal, or at least pretty close,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert with the Wilson Center who has held government posts in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

A number of factors will “tend to constrain what the administration is prepared to do to press the Israelis,” Mr. Miller says. These include unabated pro-Israeli congressional pressure, a US presidential campaign where all the candidates will be trumpeting their support for Israel, and shared US-Israel national security interests.

Miller points out that the Obama administration has “never gone beyond words to demonstrate its dissatisfaction with Israel,” and he doesn’t anticipate that happening now – simply because he doesn’t see how the US benefits by getting tough with Israel. “I just don’t see what ratcheting up [to concrete steps] gets the administration,” he says.

As a result, he says he can envision the US abstaining on (rather than vetoing) a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel over expanded settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Or the US might support a Franco-Arab resolution proposing a “framework agreement” for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and creating a Palestinian state, Miller says. 

And no matter how much the US and Israel may disagree on approaches to the Iran and Palestinian challenges, the reality is that they have common interests in how both play out, Singh says.

Israel may not like any Iran nuclear deal, but if one is reached Netanyahu will have as much interest as Obama in seeing that Iran honors its terms and is not secretly circumventing it, Singh says. At the same time, he adds, the US will have as much interest as Israel in seeing that the “vacuum” left by the absence of a peace process is not filled by something much worse.

“There’s no question it’s going to take hard work,” Singh says, “but I think it’s with sustained effort on these kinds of key mutual interests that you get the relationship back on track.”

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