Tel Aviv, Israel — In the final days of Israel’s election campaign, pollsters were calling the Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu “Teflon Netanyahu,” reflecting the common belief that he was riding an unstoppable wave of support. But Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party, trailing, was working hard to give the impression that it had found Netanyahu’s Achilles’ heel.
For months, Israelis have been speculating about how warm or cool George W. Bush’s successor will prove to be toward their country. Kadima’s message to voters was that the answer was in their hands.
Israel and America “can head toward full cooperation over common goals such as fighting terror, stopping Iran and Hamas, and Hezbollah,” Livni said while campaigning in late January. On the other hand, she said, “Israel and the United States can also reach a clash. It depends who will be here. If whoever is here stops the peace process and thinks that the world will be with him, he will find himself in a head-on collision with the United States in 20 seconds.”
The claim was simple: Obama could work well with Livni, while Netanyahu would clash with him, as he famously clashed with Bill Clinton during his previous stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999.
The response from Likud was straightforward. “People said all the same things when Menachem Begin came into office,” Zalman Shoval, head of Likud’s foreign affairs bureau, told the Forward. “They said he would endanger relations and cause a war. But he made peace with Egypt.”
“A center-right government also garners support of the center-left and proves able to make progress,” Shoval said regarding peacemaking. The Likud, he added, deserves credit not just for making peace with Egypt, but also for the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan. Even though it was signed under the Labor-led government of Yitzhak Rabin, “80% of the issues were agreed on under Likud.”
Shoval met with Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, during Mitchell’s visit to Israel at the end of January. Afterward, he told the Forward that he found Mitchell “open to new ideas.”
International relations expert Roni Bart said that Kadima’s claims should be taken with a grain of election salt. “For sure it’s spin,” said Bart, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “But because it’s spin doesn’t mean there is no truth in it.”
Many analysts point to a more complex and less convenient picture than either political party might prefer. “I think there is going to be tension and friction with the U.S. whoever is prime minister,” Bart said.
This is because internal and external pressures might preclude any Israeli government from taking the steps that the Obama administration will expect of it. So while Netanyahu’s recently declared plan to allow for “natural growth” in the settlements was widely greeted as a revelation and as evidence that there would be particular tensions between Netanyahu and Obama, the reality, Bart said, is that freezing settlement activity is “something that a right-wing government would not do and a left-center government would be unable to do.”
Bart believes that friction is more likely between Obama and Netanyahu than between Obama and Livni. Still, he argues that either of the two Israeli frontrunners would have difficulty meeting Obama’s expectations. Obama is thought to view the Clinton Parameters, an outline of a peace settlement put forward by then-president Bill Clinton in late 2000 and early 2001, as a broad context for negotiations. Nonetheless, the Labor government that was in power at the time collapsed before the parameters could affect Israeli policy, and Bart said that “the Israeli public has moved rightwards since.”
Gidi Grinstein, coordinator of the Israeli negotiating team at the time of the Clinton Parameters, points out that it is not only the political landscape within Israel that has changed since then, but also the situation on the Palestinian side. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, and the West Bank by the weakened Palestinian Authority; Hamas disputes the presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, saying that his term ran out in January. This amounts to a Palestinian constitutional crisis, and means that any Israeli government is likely to be cautious in advancing negotiations, said Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a think tank that advises the government on strategic planning,
In Grinstein’s analysis, the impasse in the region raises a distinct possibility of friction between Obama and Livni — though tension will be more likely with Netanyahu. “There is a clash of paradigms between Obama and Netanyahu,” he said. “Netanyahu wants a step-by-step process of building the Palestinian economy and infrastructure, while America is talking about a comprehensive final-status agreement.”
Grinstein, however, believes that the crisis on the Palestinian side could play into Netanyahu’s hands. Obama might be reluctant to push and risk the collapse of the entire process if there turns out to be no partner on the Palestinian side. “The Obama team could take a fresh look and come to the conclusion that the way forward is through a gradual process — gradual state building,” Grinstein said. “If this becomes their approach, there could emerge significant common ground between their approach and Netanyahu’s.”
Alon Pinkas, a former diplomat who now heads the U.S.-Israel Institute at the Yitzhak Rabin Center, has a similar view. “The assumption that they are on a collision course because Netanyahu does not want the peace process to continue in the established way is flawed,” Pinkas said. Pinkas, who served as an adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak on relations between the United States and Israel, served as a senior member of the Barak-Clinton era Strategic Planning Policy Group, which dealt with America and Israel. “The U.S. administration is also moving toward new thinking and an out-of-the-box approach to the peace process,” Pinkas said. “The economic rebuilding approach Netanyahu is putting forward could be more appealing to this administration than holding another summit, a kind of Annapolis 2.”
Grinstein foresees a scenario in which Obama has three expectations from Israel: a halt to settlement activity, progress with the Palestinians and progress on the Syria negotiating track. Significant movement on one would cause Obama to back off on others. The Syria track is the “most likely” for progress, Grinstein said.
Pinkas thinks that much of the talk of a Netanyahu-Obama clash stems from Netanyahu-Clinton friction in the 1990s. But he believes that circumstances this time around are very different.
In Israel’s 1996 election, Netanyahu viewed Clinton as unofficially endorsing Labor candidate Shimon Peres, who was seen as heir to the Yitzhak Rabin legacy. Meanwhile, Clinton saw Netanyahu as allying himself with the Republican House speaker, Newt Gingrich. This time, “Netanyahu understands the political landscape in the U.S. very well,” Pinkas said.
While Pinkas said that it is “easy to say that a clash is inevitable,” he is “mildly optimistic they will get on well. This is because as new leaders, both will be keen to avoid souring relations with the other’s country, fearing that doing so would be as potentially damaging to their administrations.”
Pinkas also predicts that Netanyahu’s desire to address the threat of Iran — “the No. 1 security problem for Israel — could lead to his compliance to America’s expectations on the Palestinian track. “He will want coordinated policy, and he’s going to have to pay the price,” Pinkas said. “The currency which he’s going to have to pay is cooperation on the Israel-Palestinian issue.”