Notwithstanding the polls, the valiant efforts of the Obama White House, a new unity on the Israeli left and a controversial term, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party appears to have swept to victory in Tuesday’s Israeli elections.
For many in Israel, the election turned on domestic economic issues and on personality. Pollsters had believed that the combination of rising prices, slowing growth and a controversial leader at the helm of the incumbent Likud would finally doom the man who was looking to notch a historic fourth term as premier on his belt. Not so much.
While it will likely take some time for Netanyahu to form a new government, the reverberations of his victory will be felt fast in Washington. U.S. President Barack Obama has made no secret of his antipathy toward Netanyahu, and many believe that Obama has allowed disagreements over policy to spill over into personal animosity. And while the White House allowed it would work with whoever won the Israeli elections, it seems clear whom the President would have voted for had he been allowed to cast a ballot.
So what will Obama do on the issues that have increasingly divided Israel and the United States?
Some believe the President will be all the more constrained in his negotiations with Iran, especially now that Israel has doubled down on the man who took to a joint meeting of Congress to publicly excoriate Obama’s hoped-for deal with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear weapons program. But the stronger likelihood is that the Likud victory will spur the administration to even more concessions to ensure a deal between Tehran and Washington. This is, after all, an administration that has written off the concerns of all of Iran’s neighbors (and America’s allies in the region) over a weak agreement that would likely do little more than pave the way toward a nuclear weapons capability for the ayatollahs. The reality is that where Obama might have been inclined to listen to the Israeli left (which differed little with the Likud over Iran), he will find it easy to dismiss the clamoring of the Israeli right, never mind that it represents the will of the people of Israel.
Then there are the negotiations with the Palestinians. Obama has never appeared personally interested in the peace process, though his administration has made repeated attempts to bring both sides to the table. But now Washington will be in an even tougher place. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has all but abandoned the notion of bilateral negotiations toward Palestinian statehood, and has brought his case instead to the international community. He has promised he will continue to pursue recognition country by country, and through the United Nations, while at the same time seeking to prosecute Israel for “war crimes” through the International Criminal Court. In the waning days of the election, Netanyahu made Abbas’ job all the easier by reversing his earlier commitment to a Palestinian state, suggesting there would never be one on his watch. The Palestinians returned the favor, announcing that they would redouble their efforts at the ICC.
This all puts Obama in a sticky spot. It will be tempting to just let the Palestinians have at Netanyahu, and the President will likely want to do just that. But what about the broader implications of allowing the International Criminal Court to proceed with accusations by a nonstate actor against a nonmember of the court, all the while insisting it has jurisdiction? Few have any doubt that if unleashed to prosecute whom it wishes by parties without legal standing (because “Palestine” is not, in fact, a state), ICC prosecutions of U.S. officials will not be far behind. Until last week, Obama administration policy was to try to walk back the entire ICC mess. It is in the best interests of the United States to continue that fight, but best interests are not always the prime mover behind Obama administration policies.
Of course, all involved in this could also act like adults with real issues at stake — Netanyahu and Obama could do the right things and put behind them the fuss over the speech to Congress, the personal backbiting, and the public bickering.
But that would require a maturity that neither party appears to embrace, more the shame for all of us.
Danielle Pletka is senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are her own.