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Haaretz, Israel

Surviving without Obama

By Leon Hadar

Translated By Hannah Stork

11 December 2012

Edited by Lydia Dallett

Israel - Haaretz - Original Article (Hebrew)

When the American president wants to honor the opposition leader of a friendly nation who is supposed to win in that nation’s elections, the president meets with him during his visit to Washington. Barack Obama, for example, spent an hour conversing with the conservative opposition leader, David Cameron, during his stay in the American capitol, regardless of the fact that the British prime minister at the time, Gordon Brown – a Labor man – was politically closer to the Democratic president.

Here’s a not-so-wild guess: President Obama will not meet with Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the Labor Party, or with the Israeli heads of opposition if they visit Washington during the coming weeks. The reason for this is not couched in fear that such a meeting is liable to be perceived as American intervention in Israel’s electoral system. After all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Mitt Romney with drums and dances when the Republican candidate for the presidency visited Jerusalem at the height of the election season in the United States. From that perspective, short political flirtation with Yachimovich, Tzipi Livni, or Yair Lapid is likely to be a kind of sweet revenge on the side of the Democratic president, whose relations with the prime minister aren’t especially warm, to say the least.

It may be that Livni and Ehud Olmert, who recently participated in a forum arranged by the Saban Center in Washington, deluded themselves into thinking that Obama would drop by for a quick visit at the event, which was a kind of going away party for departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Such a visit would have provided an excellent photo op for Netanyahu’s political opponents and would have conveyed to the Israeli voting public that the American president wanted to honor Olmert.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, Olmert dedicated a large part of his speech at the Saban Forum to personal and political attacks on Netanyahu; he accused him of interfering in the American elections and making an effort to damage Obama’s chances at reelection through his attempt to arouse the impression among the American Jewish voters that “Romney was riding to the White House on the shoulders of Israel.”

The problem is that sometimes it seems like Olmert is trying to create the impression that he himself is riding to the prime minister’s house in Jerusalem on the shoulders of the American president. Olmert isn’t the only leader of the Israeli publicist peace camp looking for a diplomatic blood feud between Obama and Netanyahu that will initiate change in the electoral alignment of powers in Israel: a change that would cause Israelis to punish Netanyahu at the polls because they have realized that he is damaging one of Israel’s central strategic assets – relations with Washington.

Expectations for such a scenario are primarily based on the battle waged in 1991 between President George Bush’s government and the prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir. The battle focused on Israel’s use of American financial assistance to build settlements. The Americans put on the pressure, and the Israelis surrendered in the end. All the while, the reputation of Shamir was being badly damaged, and he failed in his attempt at reelection as prime minister in 1992.

However, the global and political reality then (in both America and Israel) was completely different from today. Then, the United States enjoyed its stable global status after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and Bush, who stood at the head of the international and Middle Eastern coalition, routed Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Bush and his assistants determined that a battle with the Likud government wouldn’t influence the Jewish voice and that most Jewish voters would vote for the democratic candidate for the presidency anyway. The most important factor in the system of American considerations was that the political opposition under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin was perceived as a realistic replacement for the Likud and its allies that would receive broad public support.

But things today look different. American and global economies have not yet revived from the crisis they suffered, and the strategic position of the United States in the Middle East has been significantly weakened; and all this while Americans are investing their efforts in strengthening their position in East Asia, and the dependence of the American economy on Middle Eastern energy sources is beginning to shrink.

From this perspective, the White House is not subject to serious pressure to take care of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a battle with the Israeli prime minister is the last thing Obama needs these days, especially if it will hurt the chances of democratic candidates like Clinton to win the Jewish vote in 2016.

It could be that American considerations would have changed if there were a unified opposition in Israel under a leadership that receives large public prestige, and if that leadership could present a clear national plan as an alternative to that which that present government has espoused.

Obama would likely meet with such a leader in Washington. But the president does not intend to manage the Israeli political system in their stead. Israeli politicians will not be carried on his shoulders to the prime minister’s house in Jerusalem.



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