Get ready for The Barack and Bibi Show, Part Two.
With crunch-time looming in the Iranian nuclear standoff and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still smoldering, the fractious relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be tested in coming months like never before, as both leaders move into new terms in office.
But with Obama displaying a bolder leadership style since his re-election and Netanyahu seen on the defensive after a weaker-than-expected election showing on Tuesday, the Democratic president looks set to enter the next round with his hand strengthened.
U.S. officials remain cautious as they wait to see what kind of coalition Netanyahu cobbles together.
But they are also hopeful that the surprising gains by his center-left challengers will set the stage for forming a broad-based government more in sync with Obama’s agenda, including holding off on any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites and trying to restart stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
A more moderate Israeli coalition could lower tensions with Washington - which have been aggravated by Netanyahu’s demands for U.S. “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear program - and help ease Israel’s international isolation, deepened in response to settlement expansion plans on occupied land.
“The likelihood of a purely right-wing government has receded, along with the headaches that would cause for Obama,” said David Makovsky, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So there’s a better chance for Netanyahu to find a ‘modus vivendi’ with the U.S.”
But it will not be easy. Over the past four years, Obama’s dealings with Netanyahu, who is widely known by his childhood nickname “Bibi,” have often been marked by slights, mutual suspicion and even antipathy.
The hawkish Netanyahu seemed to play up his testy relationship with Obama during the Israeli election campaign - which may have contributed to his party’s lackluster showing among voters, who historically have valued maintaining good ties with their country’s closest ally.
With 2013 widely regarded as the decisive year for curbing Iran’s nuclear program, Obama and Netanyahu now have a lot more at stake if they are unable to bridge their differences.