Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was caught out this week in the politician’s cardinal sin: He played the wrong horse. When he set Israel’s next general election date for Jan. 22, 2013, he may have believed that the swearing-in of Republican Mitt Romney and a good friend of Israeli installed in the White House would assure him of a major victory.
Instead, he is still stuck with the ambivalent Barack Obama.
After the Obama win was confirmed early Nov. 7, members of the Netanyahu government came forward to explain that American-Israeli friendship is too fundamental and solid to be affected by changing faces in the White House, whichever president is elected.
But the Israeli voter knows better. Obama and Netanyahu have never got on or seen eye to eye on critical issues. They avoid each other whenever possible. When the prime minister announced he would be in New York for his “red line” speech on Iran at the UN on Sept. 27, he was told that the president would not have tme to see him. Obama in fact made haste to leave New York, even cancelling interviews with other foreign heads of state, to avoid running into the prime minister on that date.
Three days earlier, the US president said on the “60 Minutes” TV program that he “blocked out certain “noises” in the wake of Netanyahu's insistent call for Washington to set red lines for the Iranian nuclear program in return for Israel’s military restraint. Israelis were deeply offended by this comment and took it as a personal affront against their prime minister.
Chill winds from Washington harden Netanyahu’s positions
The cold winds blowing in from the first Obama administration had the effect of hardening Netanyahu’s attitudes in foreign relations and security affairs.
In July, he abruptly ended a four-month coalition partnership he set up in May with the centrist Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz who was too moderate for his liking. The Kadima leader has never recovered from being dumped.
He then took steps to cool his close partnership with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, for four years his senior point man for the most sensitive security and diplomatic aspects of relations with the Obama administration.
When Barak flew to Chicago on Sept. 20 to see Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, he was accused in Netanyahu’s private circle of intriguing against the prime minister with Obama associates and the partnership finally snapped.
The prime minister’s real beef was that the defense minister, who had stood squarely with Netanyahu on the imperative of a preemptive strike against a nuclear Iran, had suddenly changed his spots and by lining up against the operation with the US president, had torpedoed it.
How ready is Netanyahu to push the button on Iran?
Netanyahu chose US Election Day, Tuesday, to revert to rhetoric not heard since mid-summer about an Israeli attack on Iran if international sanctions failed to stall its nuclear program.
"I am, of course, ready to press the button if necessary," he said, when he still believed Romney was on his way to the White House. Only too soon, he discovered he would still have to contend with Barack Obama and his objections to a military strike on Iran – a second-term president armed with greater freedom of action than ever before.
The prime minister is also saddled with political perplexities at home. His wayward maneuverings between centrist and right-leaning alliances – Kadima one minute, and the next, the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu with whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Likud has agreed to run for election on one ticket – make Netanyahu look inconsistent and unreliable.
The Israeli public has still never been told exactly why in four years as prime minister, Netanyahu did push the button for a preemptive Israeli strike to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, despite his repeated pledges. They are asking if he has given up on his conviction that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. Or was he just intimidated by Washington? In any case, his options on Iran have narrowed with Obama’s reelection.
Netanyahu has less than three months for a turnaround
Whichever way he looks at it, Obama's reelection casts a pall over Netanyahu's chances of winning the Israeli general elections in January 2013, which only a couple of weeks ago, looked unassailable.
His political rivals -and especially the left-of-center admirers of the President Obama’s liberal social agenda – have taken heart from his reelection and sense an opportunity to take a bite out of the ruling Likud’s electoral following.
Likud had an impressive record of dedication to improving the lot of the ordinary Israeli in the past, whereas Netanyahu’s Likud is committed to a more capitalist, free market policy which has made the Israeli economy boom. But his failure to narrow the gap between the low- and middle-income classes and the rich has brought protesters out on the street. He may have to backtrack on some of the economic policies he has always touted as responsible for making the Israeli economy a success story to win votes.
In the vital relationship with Washington, Netanyahu has won a demerit for betting on the wrong American horse..
It is widely noted that he and Mitt Romney shared the same financial patron, the Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon G. Adelson, who sank more than $50 million in the Romney campaign to take the White House from Obama
Adelson has put as much money in Israel – if not more – to create a media and communications machine for backing Netanyahu against the predominantly left-of-center mainstream media’s constant sniping. He may have aspired to the powerful position of key broker between the Romney White House in Washington and Netanyahu Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. He too will have to nurse his disappointment.