A politician is expected to reward friends and punish whoever dares to cross him. So Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s barely veiled backing for Mitt Romney not only bent the unwritten rule requiring Israeli leaders to preserve a posture of immaculate neutrality in US elections; it meant that Obama owes the Israeli pol some sort of payback.
If Obama’s past performances can be taken as a reliable guide, there is little chance he would retaliate against Netanyahu by meddling in the Israeli election scheduled for Jan. 22. But he should. Not for the petty motive of settling scores with Netanyahu, but to safeguard the true long-term interests of Israelis, Americans, and all the peoples of the Middle East.
Obama, who has been criticized in many quarters for not visiting Israel during his first term, could get himself invited to address the Israeli Knesset or to speak in a university setting. Given Israel’s dependence on close diplomatic, military, and intelligence cooperation with Washington, Obama would be in a position to influence the choices made by at least a portion of the Israeli electorate.
Considering that a new party to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud is polling 12 to 14 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, that Likud’s own list is now dominated by radicals impatient with democratic restraint, and that Israel’s centrist and left-leaning parties seem to be in steep decline, an Obama speech could hardly be expected to enable someone other than Netanyahu to form the next government. In Israel’s parliamentary system, however, the shape and disposition of a government is often determined in the bargaining, balancing, and bribing with ministerial portfolios that go under the rubric of forming a coalition. And the right sort of speech from Obama could have a crucial effect on the post-election process of deal-making.
If Obama’s words were to shift a few Knesset seats from the far right to the more temperate right, and a few more from Netanyahu’s rightist bloc to parties of the center and the left, prospects would improve for a coalition balanced between center-right and center-left, one in which no single party of the extreme right could threaten to bring down the government by leaving it.
Obama would not have to say anything very original. He could offer an American endorsement for the sage counsel of Israel’s President Shimon Peres, who told a conclave of Israeli ambassadors the other day that “there is no alternative’’ to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine peace partner. Obama would be acting in accord with US and Israeli interests if he told Israeli voters to heed the Peres criticism of Israeli rightists who act as if they could overcome reality by denying it. “If someone rejects the idea of a two-state solution, he should say what he has in its place,’’ Peres told the Israeli diplomats. “Even if you do not have another option . . . reality will bring the alternative. I tell you categorically that the idea of a bi-national state endangers the Jewish, Zionist, and democratic nature of Israel.’’
This is the crux of the matter. Israel must choose between occupation of the land conquered in 1967 and a conflict-ending peace that preserves the state of Israel created in 1948. Obama should make it plain that the policies of the outgoing Netanyahu government have needlessly alienated Turkey, a crucial former ally, and deprived Israel of support from even its best friends in Europe. Obama should also take on directly Netanyahu’s argument that he cannot pursue negotiations with the Palestinians at a time when political turmoil or civil war threatens neighboring states. Israeli voters should hear the US president say that Israel needs to seek a negotiated peace now, while the 2002 Arab League offer of peace and normalized relations with all 22 Arab states is still on the table, an offer conditioned on a two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Opinion surveys indicate that two-thirds of Israelis still favor a two-state peace agreement even while polls warn of an impending electoral shift toward extreme right-wingers determined to prolong the occupation of the West Bank — or to annex it. Israelis who need peace with their neighbors deserve help from Obama, even if that means meddling in Israeli politics.