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Bibi’s bad bet: Netanyahu damaged political chances by backing Romney

Published time: November 08, 2012 09:14
Edited time: November 08, 2012 13:14

Barack Obama (R) and Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)

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Barack Obama’s reelection may be bad news for Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Their icy personal rapport aside, experts warn that Netanyahu’s over-involvement in the US campaign could drive apart the two nations and derail his own electoral prospects.

­Netanyahu did little to conceal his preference for who he wanted in the White House for the next four years, RT Middle East bureau chief Paula Slier said. His government’s spats with the Obama administration over Palestinian peace talks and Iran’s nuclear program too often went public, shaking the image of the US as an unblinking ally of Israel.

In September, Obama refused to side with Netanyahu’s warmongering stance towards Iran and agree to a ‘red line’ that would trigger a US attack on the country. In previous years, Washington pressured Tel Aviv to freeze construction of settlements in the occupied territories, a move that contradicted Netanyahu’s accommodating stance towards settlers.

Another barrier to negotiations is the pair’s rumored dislike for each other.

Relations between the two administrations hit a new low when Netanyahu openly supported Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the US presidential administration. Romney is a longtime personal friend of the Israeli PM. Netanyahu welcomed Romney to Israel during a campaign visit to the country, and also appeared in Republican campaign ads.

Most American Israelis also favored the Republican candidate. Of the roughly 80,000 who voted from Israel, four in five voted Romney, RT’s Slier says.

However, Jewish voters in the US sided with Obama, as in the last election: Around 70 percent of American Jewish voters picked the Democrat on Tuesday. In a poll conducted by Democratic firm GBA Strategies on behalf of the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, Jewish voters were far more concerned with the US economy, not policy towards Israel or Iran, in casting their ballot.

Several critics now argue that Netanyahu gambled for Romney and lost, and that his decision may have damaged US-Israeli relations.

“I think that a prime minister in Israel doesn't do two things. He doesn't interfere in the elections in the US and he doesn't gamble on one of the candidates. This definitely caused damage,” Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz told Channel 2 TV.

“We are the junior partner in this relationship. Both men want to succeed, they need to cooperate in order to succeed and I think it’s not an insurmountable challenge for Netanyahu to fix the relationship,”
Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the US told RT.

Compounding Netanyahu’s woes, he may also find his US counterpart more difficult to negotiate with now.

“I think in general second term presidents are not good for Israel – because a lot of them put focus on the Israeli Palestinian issue and they put unnatural pressure on both sides to make compromises which are not good for either side – because they don’t have to be reelected and they’re looking more to legacy,” Mitchell Barak, the founder of Israel-based political research firm Keevon said.

Backpedaling on his aggressive rhetoric could now hurt Netanyahu’s political image as a stalwart, which would in turn damage his reelection prospects in Israel’s January elections. He leads in opinion polls at the moment, but analysts say that a major stumble could prompt a serious electoral challenge from heavyweight opponents like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In a speech to American leaders of the Jewish community on Wednesday, Olmert, hinting at possible political ambitions, accused Netanyahu of damaging relations with the US

"Following what Netanyahu did in the last few months, raises the question whether or not our prime minister has a friend in the White House. I am not sure of that, and it could be very significant for us at a critical time," he said.

But further alienating Obama could leave Israel with insufficient support if it makes good on its threats to unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu and his ministers maintain that the window of opportunity for such an attack is closing soon, but the Obama administration opposes military action and favors its continuing push for crippling economic sanctions against Iran.

Some experts question whether Israel has the offensive capabilities to destroy Iran’s nuclear program without US support.

“In order to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities, you need many strikes, over an extended period of time. Only one country in the world is capable of doing that – and I don’t think that they will do it – and that’s the United States,” Yiftah Shapir of the Institute for National Security Studies told RT.

Netanyahu may ultimately have painted himself into a corner: Both the risk of military action and easing his warmongering rhetoric could carry negative political consequences.

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