JERUSALEM – President Barack Obama’s re-election has left Israel’s prime minister in a bind.
Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly has clashed with Obama and was widely seen as backing Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the American election. Yet in the coming months, Netanyahu will need American support more than ever as the Palestinians seek upgraded recognition at the U.N. and the world grapples with the Iranian nuclear program.
“It seems like it is not such a good morning for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” Israeli Cabinet minister Eli Yishai told reporters early Wednesday as news of Obama’s victory emerged.
The concern reflected the widespread perception in Israel that poor personal chemistry between the two leaders could affect the broader relationship between their governments, particularly if Netanyahu is re-elected in upcoming parliamentary elections. The Israeli leader is the front-runner in the Jan. 22 race, according to opinion polls.
The chilly relations are a result of style and substance. The two men have vastly different world views – Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on security and support for free-market capitalism are much more in line with the Republicans – and they have never appeared comfortable with one another.
In one tense encounter, Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama on the pitfalls of peacemaking as they sat in front of reporters in the Oval Office. During that same trip to Washington, Netanyahu was warmly welcomed in a speech on Capitol Hill, creating a perception that he was playing off Congress against the president.
They have also clashed over key policy issues. Obama took office promising to make Mideast peace a top priority, and he quickly alienated many Israelis with his outreach to the Muslim world. Israelis remember Obama’s decision not to visit the country after making a landmark speech in neighboring Egypt shortly after taking office.
Obama pressed Israel to end settlement construction in occupied territory claimed by the Palestinians. Netanyahu, a longtime supporter of the settlers, agreed to a limited freeze on construction. But when the slowdown expired, he refused Obama’s appeals to extend it. Peace talks quickly broke down, and Palestinians, disillusioned with Obama, have refused to return to the negotiating table.
Differences over Iran have been equally stark. Both countries suspect that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon — a charge Tehran denies. But their approaches to resolving the matter are vastly different.
Obama has pushed for a diplomatic solution and spearheaded international efforts to impose a series of punishing economic sanctions on Iran.
Netanyahu, believing a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten Israel’s very existence, has expressed skepticism over diplomatic efforts and threatened to attack if necessary.
These threats are not empty. Earlier this week, an Israeli news program reported that Netanyahu had put Israel’s air force on high alert for a possible attack in 2010 but backed down following objections by his security chiefs. Speaking to the program, Netanyahu said his resolve to attack, if necessary, remains firm.
Disagreements over the military option spilled over in September when Netanyahu urged the president to spell out clear “red lines” that would trigger an American attack on Iran. Obama refused.
The dispute, coupled with Netanyahu’s decades-old friendship with Romney and American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a bankroller of Romney’s campaign, added to the perception that the Israeli leader was siding with the Republican challenger.
“I think that a prime minister in Israel doesn’t do two things. He doesn’t interfere in the elections in the U.S. and he doesn’t gamble on one of the candidates. This definitely caused damage,” opposition leader Shaul Mofaz told Channel 2 TV.
Netanyahu, who has denied taking sides in the U.S. race, quickly congratulated Obama on Wednesday and described the security relationship between the two countries as “rock solid.”
“I look forward to working with President Obama to further strengthen this relationship and I look forward to working with him to advance our goals of peace and security,” Netanyahu said at a joint appearance with U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
Shapiro, meanwhile, dismissed suggestions that Obama might seek revenge as “ridiculous.” Obama is “not somebody whose policies are governed by emotions,” Shapiro told an academic conference.
Relations could be tested as soon as this month when the Palestinians are expected to ask the U.N. General Assembly to grant them upgraded “nonmember state” status. The Palestinians are seeking broader international backing for their independence in the absence of peace talks.
Israel staunchly opposes the bid, saying differences can only be resolved through negotiations. While the U.S. also opposes the Palestinian initiative, Obama may push Israel to make some concessions to the Palestinians in order to halt the bid and return to negotiations.
“We hope that President Obama’s second term will be a term for peace, stability and democracy for the region, during which we will witness the implementation of the two-state solution, the end of Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.
The Obama victory could also play a role in the Israeli election campaign.
Eytan Gilboa, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, said Obama could hypothetically side against Netanyahu in the Israeli campaign by signaling support for opposition leaders, though he said Obama would be “ill advised” to do so. More likely, he said opposition leaders would try to make the rocky relationship with the U.S. a key issue during the campaign.
Gilboa said the Obama reaction might even draw heavyweight opponents like former prime minister Ehud Olmert back into the race.
In a speech to American Jewish leaders in New York on Wednesday, Olmert, in a possible prelude to a political return, accused Netanyahu of damaging relations with the U.S. “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,” Olmert said, accordingly to a statement from his aide.
“I am not sure of that, and it could be very significant for us at a critical time,” he said. “To my great distress, Netanyahu has turned Israel from an issue that is above all dispute in the American campaign to an issue at the heart of the debate.”
The biggest challenge for U.S.-Israeli relations could be Iran. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu said the window to attack Iran was quickly closing, and the world would have to act by next summer at the latest. With Obama expected to step up his diplomatic efforts, perhaps even through direct talks with Iran, tensions could emerge if Netanyahu is re-elected.
Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents, said he did not think Obama “will go to war” with Netanyahu. But he said he did not think the personal relationship will improve unless the men are “forced by necessity” to cooperate, perhaps by resolving the Iran issue.
“In general, you have a relationship that doesn’t have a solid foundation. There’s great distrust,” he said. “But regardless of a lack of trust, in a way, the relationship is too big to fail.”