JERUSALEM – President Obama’s re-election has left Israel’s prime minister in a predicament.
Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly has clashed with Obama and was widely seen as backing Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the election. Yet in the coming months, Netanyahu will need U.S. support more than ever as the Palestinians seek upgraded recognition at the U.N. and the world grapples with the Iranian nuclear program.
It seems like it is not such a good morning for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Cabinet minister Eli Yishai said as news of Obama’s victory emerged.
The concern reflected the widespread perception in Israel that poor personal chemistry between the two leaders could affect the broader relationship between their governments, particularly if Netanyahu is re-elected in coming parliamentary elections. The Israeli leader is the front-runner in the Jan. 22 race, polls show.
The chilly relations are a result of style and substance. The two men have vastly different world views – Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on security and support for free-market capitalism are much more in line with the Republicans – and they have never appeared comfortable with one another.
In one tense encounter, Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama on the pitfalls of peacemaking as they sat in front of reporters in the Oval Office. During that same trip, Netanyahu was warmly welcomed in a speech on Capitol Hill, creating a perception that he was playing off Congress against the president.
They have also clashed over key policy issues. Obama took office promising to make Mideast peace a top priority, and he quickly alienated many Israelis with his outreach to the Muslim world. Israelis remember Obama’s decision not to visit the country after making a landmark speech in neighboring Egypt shortly after taking office.
Obama pressed Israel to end settlement construction in occupied territory claimed by the Palestinians. Netanyahu, a longtime supporter of the settlers, agreed to a limited freeze on construction. But when the slowdown expired, he refused Obama’s appeals to extend it. Peace talks quickly broke down, and Palestinians, disillusioned with Obama, have refused to return to the negotiating table.
Differences over Iran have been equally stark. Both countries suspect that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon – a charge Tehran denies. But their approaches to resolving the matter are vastly different.
Obama has pushed for a diplomatic solution and spearheaded international efforts to impose a series of punishing economic sanctions.
Netanyahu, believing a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten Israel’s existence, has expressed skepticism over diplomatic efforts and threatened to attack if necessary.
These threats are not empty. Earlier this week, an Israeli news program reported that Netanyahu had put Israel’s air force on high alert for a possible attack in 2010 but backed down following objections by his security chiefs. Speaking to the program, Netanyahu said his resolve to attack, if necessary, remains firm.
Disagreements over the military option spilled over in September when Netanyahu urged the president to spell out clear red lines that would trigger an American attack on Iran. Obama refused.
The dispute, coupled with Netanyahu’s decades-old friendship with Romney and American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a bankroller of Romney’s campaign, added to the perception that the Israeli leader was siding with the Republican challenger.
I think that a prime minister in Israel doesn’t do two things. He doesn’t interfere in the elections in the U.S. and he doesn’t gamble on one of the candidates. This definitely caused damage, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz told Channel 2 TV.