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Obama and Netanyahu
Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Obama and Netanyahu

A cold peace

Israel | The same men lead the United States and Israel as last year, but their relationship may soon become icier than ever

Issue: "Maximum insecurity," Feb. 23, 2013

Israel’s surprising election results confused the critics and astounded the analysts. Many predicted apathy and were shocked by the numbers: Voter turnout for the Jan. 22 parliamentary election was over 66 percent—the highest in more than a decade. The vast majority forecasted a sweep for the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a continued trend toward the right, but centrist newcomer Yair Lapid stole the spotlight as Netanyahu narrowly won a third term.

The international media were quick to conclude that Israelis voted for peace, with headlines such as, “Rise of Israeli centrist raises hopes for peace,” “Election takes Israel’s finger off trigger for war with Iran,” and “Charismatic leader helps Israel turn toward the center.”

This election, however, was not about reviving stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians or unrest just beyond Israel’s borders. It did not revolve around Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The parties that gained seats staked their campaigns on domestic matters, such as affordable housing and ending the draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews, while the few parties that challenged the foreign policy status quo lost seats in the 19th Knesset.

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Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government with a weakened Likud presence, but his bigger challenge may be dealing with a president of the United States emboldened in a second term. The American elections in November may prove more troublesome for Netanyahu’s foreign policy than the Israeli elections in January. 

Less than a week before Israelis went to the polls, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg of the Bloomberg news service sparked controversy when he quoted President Obama as saying, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Alluding to private conversations with the president (that the White House neither confirmed nor denied), Goldberg wrote, “In Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path towards near-total isolation.” He said Obama believes “Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.”

Netanyahu’s decision to expand settlement construction to E-1, an area that would effectively prevent Palestinians from connecting two key cities in a future sovereign state, sparked sharp criticism. The bold move came after Palestinians requested and received United Nations recognition of a de facto state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

According to Goldberg, Obama “didn’t even bother getting angry,” adding that “this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect.”

The timing and tone of the remarks didn’t sit well with a number of Israeli pundits. The Jerusalem Post’s Michael Freund accused Obama of “interfering in the Jewish state’s election campaign” with remarks that were “eerily reminiscent of the colonial mindset.”

When asked by The Jerusalem Post about Obama’s pointed criticism, Netanyahu’s response was more diplomatic: “Well, I’m sure President Obama understands that only Israel’s sovereign and elected government can determine Israel’s vital national interests, especially its security.”

On the surface, it appears as if the Israeli electorate may have listened to Obama’s cautionary words. Against predictions, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party won a paltry 31 Knesset seats (compared to 42 combined seats during the 2009 election) while the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) came in a surprising second with 19 of Parliament’s 120 seats.

The leader of the party that wins the most votes has the complex task of forming a broad-based coalition to keep control of the Parliament, and all eyes turned to Yair Lapid, the 49-year-old leader of the new centrist party and a former talk show host known for his charisma and good looks. Netanyahu will likely offer Lapid one of three ministries—foreign, education, or finance—in exchange for joining the prime minister’s coalition.

While Lapid staked his campaign on economic woes (the rising cost of living amid a growing budget deficit), he claims he will not join Netanyahu’s government unless the prime minister commits to reviving stalled peace negotiations with Palestinians. But a closer examination of his foreign policy reveals a mindset closely aligned with Netanyahu. “Jerusalem belongs to the people of Israel and no one else,” Lapid wrote on his Facebook page, followed by assertions that the Arab people don’t want peace.

The final status of Jerusalem is a key sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and Obama sees little room for compromise. “The biggest issue between Israel and the United States is clearly the issue of settlements,” Max Singer, co-founder of the Hudson Institute and an expert at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told me.

“There are 300,000 Israelis in Jerusalem living in what Obama would call settlements. It’s a disagreement that’s fundamental and cannot change,” he said. Singer added that most Israelis favor dismantling “the most extreme settlements”—those with fewer Israelis that are in the middle of areas surrounded by Palestinians—but against compromising Jerusalem and suburban communities near the border.

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