It was a few months ago that Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to Washington, said — behind closed doors — that if re-elected, Barack Obama would settle accounts with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is revenge over what is perceived in the White House as Netanyahu's flagrant meddling in the American presidential elections. On the other hand, other Israeli voices completely discount this possibility and claim that Obama was, and will remain, a pragmatic president regarding Israel and his support for Israel. One way or the other, one thing is sure: Netanyahu is worried. Very worried.
Tuesday [Nov. 6], while writing the article whose publication was delayed due to the Maariv employee strike, Obama's victory was still uncertain. There was great suspense in Netanyahu's office in anticipation of the election results. It is no secret that Netanyahu preferred that Republican Mitt Romney would be elected. If Romney would have been elected, Netanyahu's sigh of relief would have been heard as far away as Washington. While this was Netanyahu's personal preference, it is important to remember that throughout the existence of the State of Israel, its prime ministers always preferred a Republican president in the White House.
"It will be difficult in any event"
But Obama the Democrat was the one to be elected and the atmosphere in Netanyahu's office, in the wake of Obama's re-election, is harsh. "Whether he will settle accounts with Bibi or just operate according to his cold logic, our situation will be difficult," says a source from the prime minister's inner circle. The same source explains that distrust existing between the two leaders is likely to destroy any initiative that the American administration, under Obama's renewed leadership, may place on the cherry-[wood] table in Jerusalem on the day that the election hoopla fades away.
Officials connected to the US-Israeli relationship on many different levels, claim that Obama lacks the special inner affinity toward Israel that had typified Bush the son, Clinton and even Reagan. Obama's DNA lacks this basic warmth toward Israel that used to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Washington to Jerusalem. Freed from electoral concerns of being re-elected, second-term President Obama will be less obligated to Jewish money. The lack of this special empathy, and the severe credibility crisis between the two leaders, is what is causing the tremendous apprehension in Jerusalem as they face the future.
Ron Dermer, Netanyahu's political adviser, intervened even more — so claim American sources. Dermer comes from a family of conservative Republican orientation and he deepened ties with Republican Congress members and high-level members of the administration when he served as economic attaché in Washington during the administration of Bush the son. Dermer is perceived as having crossed the line in his [political] involvement, in Congress as well as among the donors. Netanyahu is aware of this, and now that Obama has been re-elected, it seems that Dermer can forget about an appointment this summer as next ambassador to Washington. But the White House views them both as cut from the same cloth: Dermer equals Netanyahu. As far as they are concerned, it was Netanyahu who armed the Republican campaign against Obama.
The optimistic alternative
Another Israeli diplomat, an Americanologist by training, completely denies this possibility. In his view, Obama acts in an extremely rational manner and always maintains his composure. Thus, he will distinguish between his negative feelings toward Netanyahu and "the right thing to do." This will hold true for issues in the Palestinian context, the Iranian context and even regarding continued defense assistance to Israel against rocket [attacks].
It is still not clear which of the two scenarios will materialize, but what is clear is that, meanwhile, Netanyahu is concerned. The specter of a hostile second term of office in Obama's White House looms above Netanyahu's head.
This brings us to the diplomatic challenges on the agenda — both the Israeli and American agendas — which had been placed in deep freeze and will now be quickly defrosted with the conclusion of the elections. The issue of greatest immediacy is join hands with the United States to avert the Palestinian appeal to the United Nations for nonmember state status in the coming weeks. Despite background noise [to the contrary], Israel is actually powerless against the Palestinian initiative in the United Nations that is anticipated to automatically garner a large majority. The Palestinians remain unmoved even by American threats of various sanctions; as of this moment, the Palestinians have not budged from their fundamental position. Abu Mazen conspires for any kind of public achievement, and perhaps has future plans to drag Israel directly to the halls of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, after receiving recognition in the United Nations.
Netanyahu is very concerned about this diplomatic challenge that will be a millstone around his neck in the very midst of the difficult Israeli election campaign. Even now, a classified telegram received by the Foreign Ministry and National Security Council, it appears that the Americans succeeded in postponing the Palestinian initiative in the United Nations by a few weeks. In this time period bought by the Americans, the nightmare-scenario is that Obama will immediately place a proposal for renewing negotiations with the Palestinians on Netanyahu's threshold – a proposal that Netanyahu will have a hard time refusing.
On the other hand, we remember that Obama already took this approach in his first week in office in 2008 — and was burned. Therefore, it is not clear if he will want to dive back into the muddy waters of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians immediately, or will prefer to wait a bit instead. But today, as opposed to then , the Palestinians are determined to go to the United Nations and embarrass everyone. Whether Obama will choose to invest his political capital to stop them (and how), are questions that remain to be answered. Another question is whether Obama will do the opposite, and give in to them. Just think how Netanyahu will 'love' this account-settling! But Netanyahu's office is shrouded in additional worries. One of them is the nightmare-scenario (from Netanyahu's point of view) that Obama will warmly embrace Ehud Olmert and indirectly intervene in Israeli elections. Although Olmert's people deny this, it is not groundless to posit a scenario in which Olmert — who is staying right now in the United States — may be able to get a photograph taken of him with Obama or one of Obama's people (such as Rahm Emanuel) at one of the parties held in honor of the re-election. And this could give Olmert a tail wind, should he decide to join the Israeli presidential race.
The all-clear signal
In other words, Netanyahu is likely to reveal that Obama also knows how to play the internal-politics game — this time, in Israel. Fateful issues such as Iran, Syria and of course the Palestinians (at a critical crossroads, at a time when the Middle East is on fire) — all these, may impact the local election campaign. Netanyahu can no longer avoid making harsh decisions and paying a high political price for American demands. The test may arrive especially quickly, after it became clear yesterday [Nov. 7] that Obama and not Romney will sit in the Oval Office.
Netanyahu, who is well aware of all this, rushed — a short time after receiving the election results – to play the all-clear signal and remove the mark of Cain that has been on his forehead in recent months. "I would like to congratulate President Obama on his re-election," said Netanyahu in a meeting he quickly organized yesterday with the American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. In his words, Netanyahu expressed to his worries regarding the possibility of Obama inflicting damage in several spheres of military cooperation with Israel, evidently defense against rocket attacks, and also in the way that the American president may attempt to advance the stuck negotiations with the Palestinians. "The security relationship between the United States and Israel is rock solid. I look forward to working with President Obama to further strengthen this relationship to advance the goals of peace and security," added Netanyahu.
But America has changed since the young Bibi studied in a high school in a Philadelphian suburb and was member of the debate club. He continues to talk Republicanese at a time that American demography has changed drastically, and minorities lead the growth in the new continent. Is Netanyahu aware of all this? He still hopes that his decision to push up the Israeli elections close to the timing of the American elections, will avert most of the potential damage that Obama may want to cause him. Netanyahu will find out within a very short time-frame, whether all his fears will be realized.