Livni and Olmert Wait for Obama

The Israeli opposition bides its time, hoping an Obama-Netanyahu battle will let it swoop in to save the day.

In his dispatch from the annual Saban Forum that took place in Washington last weekend, The New Yorker's editor David Remnick captured the mood among those he described as “Americans with ties to Democratic Administrations” engaging in “despairing hallway talk about the state of Israeli politics—the stark contrast between the vitality of Israeli economic, cultural, and academic life, and the miserable state of its political culture, the poverty of skill, talent, and imagination.” According to Remnick, the centrist and center-left Israeli politicians that took part in the conference, including Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni, “were so obviously in the eclipse” and “their sense of defeat and frustration was distinct.”

But Remnick failed to ask why Livni and Olmert were wasting precious campaign time schmoozing with American politicos in Washington when a crucial parliamentary election will take place in Israel in less than two months.

In fact, while she was singing the praise of Hillary Clinton, Livni was in the midst of a fight inside the opposition Kadima Party that led her to break away from it and form a new party.

Olmert, who was forced to retire from his position as prime minister after being accused of corruption, seemed to have devoted much time in Washington to blasting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Remnick reported that Olmert mocked Netanyahu “for pretending to be friends with Obama after being his 'enemy' in the presidential campaign just a few weeks ago,” and called Mitt Romney’s campaign trip to Israel was “made to create the impression among Jewish American voters that Romney was riding to the White House on the shoulders of Israel.”

Ironically, one of the reasons that Olmert and Livni were in Washington interfacing with Obama Administration officials was to create the impression among Israeli voters that they would be riding to the prime minister’s office on the shoulders of the U.S. president, who Republicans—and by extension Netanyahu—lost to in November. As Tom Friedman pointed out in the New York Times, since Obama's reelection, Israelis who belong to the so-called “peace camp” were hoping that he would take revenge against Netanyahu for the way he openly backed Romney during the campaign. In fact, the notion that Obama and Netanyahu may be on a diplomatic collision course has been heightened in recent days after the Israeli government announced new settlement activity in the West Bank in response to the UN General Assembly's decision to grant membership to the Palestinian Authority.

A political Israeli axiom is that Israeli voters measure the performance of their leaders based in part based on their success in managing Israel's relationship with the United States, its major global patron. An Israeli leader who fails in that task will eventually be punished on Election Day. That is what happened to former Likud leader and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir when he lost the election in 1992 following a dramatic diplomatic confrontation with the administration of President George H.W. Bush over the establishment of new Jewish settlements.

Netanyahu, who was raised and educated in the United States and has maintained close ties with American politicians and journalists, especially on the political right, has succeeded in selling his American connections as a political asset to Israelis, especially at a time when his neoconservative pals were in power or in ascent. But after the Republican loss, the asset seems to have become a liability. Replace Shamir with Netanyahu and Obama with Bush I and one understands why Olmert, Livni and other Israeli politicians are hoping to play the role of Rabin in a sequel to the 1992 production.

But in 1992, the Israeli opposition to the ruling Likud Party was unified behind the popular Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Party. Today it has splintered into several political factions, which include the remnants of Kadima, the Labor Party, the secular-liberal Yesh Atid, several small left-leaning and Arab parties and now Livni's new party.

That reality, coupled with major demographic changes including the arrival of hundreds of thousands right-leaning Russian immigrants and the high birth rates among members of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, explains why Netanyahu is expected to win the election and form a coalition with other religious and nationalist pro-settler parties.

The willingness on the part of Netanyahu to stand up to President Obama over the settlements helps enhance his support among these nationalist and religious Israelis. These groups are gradually becoming a powerful voting bloc at the same time as political Islam is becoming more influential on the Arab and Palestinian side, lessening the chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

This is a major reason why members of the Israeli peace camp and their allies in Washington are bound to be disappointed. Under these conditions, how can they expect that President Obama would choose to pick a diplomatic fight with Netanyahu or invest major resources in trying to revive the peace process?

Pivot Away from the Middle East?

President Obama decided not to cancel his scheduled trip to Southeast Asia as new hostilities between Israel and Hamas began. This may be the latest example of Washington's inclination to deprioritize Israel/Palestine (and the Middle East in general) while placing East Asia on the top of the foreign-policy agenda. Hence, Obama's historic trip to Myanmar was seen as more important than another attempt to try making peace between Arabs and Jews. The tribal fights in the Holy Land could wait.