THERE IS little doubt that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is among those bemoaning Barack Obama’s reelection. The two have had a testy relationship since Obama pressed Israel to halt settlement construction in the West Bank early in his presidency. Netanyahu’s administration responded with a diplomatic slap in the face: They announced new construction the same day Vice President Biden arrived in Israel.
In the run-up to the US presidential election, Netanyahu made few efforts to hide his preference for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who echoed his own hawkish rhetoric on Iran. (Netanyahu and Romney also have the Boston Consulting Group, financier Sheldon Adelson, and Republican pollster Arthur Finkelstein in common.) That left Obama with more reasons to distrust Netanyahu.
The common understanding between the United States is still visible in moments of crisis, such as the current violence in and near Gaza. But Obama and Netanyahu need to work harder to develop greater personal trust; the stakes in the Middle East are too high for both nations to have their leaders working through personal differences at moments such as these.
Netanyahu bears the greater responsibility for forging a closer relationship, because he did the most recent damage. To an extent that was highly unusual for a foreign leader, he stuck his neck out for Romney, who campaigned on the pledge that he would never allow any “daylight” between the United States and Israel. Now, Netanyahu is facing unprecedented criticism in Israel for injecting himself into an American election. A host of prominent personalities — from politicians to former heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies — have gone on record opposing Netanyahu’s statements before the US vote, particularly his criticism of Obama’s policy on Iran.
“Bibi Gambled, We’ll Pay,” the highest-circulated newspaper in Israel, the Yedioth Ahronoth, lamented after Obama’s victory.
Israelis must understand that their alliance with the United States has stood the test of time across Democratic and Republican administrations precisely because leaders have avoided taking sides. Currying favor with one party at the expense of the other is not a good strategy for the long term.
It is unclear whether Netanyahu will pay a political price for his miscalculation. He is still the man to beat in January, when Israelis go to the polls themselves. Like it or not, Obama and Netanyahu will probably have to work together in the coming years.
Given the bad chemistry between the two leaders, it is vital for other senior US and Israeli officials to meet more often, far from the glare of publicity. In addition, more “Track II” diplomatic efforts, like the one former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns held recently at Harvard’s Kennedy School, are essential.
The United States and Israel will have a better chance of dismantling Iran’s nuclear program if they work together. The promise of US diplomacy and the threat of an Israeli military strike could be the “good-cop, bad-cop” routine that finally convinces Iran to relent. But for that to happen, Netanyahu and Obama have to learn to trust each other.