If Barack Strikes Back
If Obama tries to pressure Netanyahu in his second term, he isn't likely to get far.
Some pundits and analysts argue that Barack Obama’s reelection was in part a referendum on the future of U.S.-Israeli relations and Israeli foreign policy. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the thinking goes, will now face increased pressure from the United States: Obama will seek revenge for Netanyahu’s shoddy treatment of him, push Israel to make concessions toward the Palestinians or perhaps contain its interest in striking Iranian nuclear facilities. Nicholas Kristof, for example, tweeted, “One loser in the 2012 election is Netanyahu. If you’re going to meddle in US politics, Bibi, don’t bet on the loser.” It’s been retweeted over five hundred times.
These assertions rest on a misunderstanding of decision making in U.S. foreign policy and the nature of presidential authority in the Middle East, including over Israel.
U.S. presidents are dominant in the nation’s execution of foreign policy, but they are not the only players in that game. Congress can intervene as well, particularly through its control of the purse strings, but also in the considerable normative pressure it can channel. And while the Democrats may have done better in this election, they will have to fight for reelection in two years again. Given continuing interest-group pressure and public-opinion trends, it’s unlikely they’ll want to see a confrontation between the United States and Israel.
Indeed, Obama’s first effort to push the peace process forward by convincing Israel to adopt a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks failed abysmally. Given his domestic constraints, this is likely to make him more cautious about dramatic new policies on the issue.
U.S.-Israeli relations are also far more institutionalized than the personal relationship between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. The interstate alliance has survived Dwight Eisenhower’s public threats against Israeli actions in the 1956 Sinai campaign, Ronald Reagan’s sale of advanced AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, and George H. W. Bush’s withholding of loan guarantees in the early 1990s just as Israel needed to settle hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Even if Obama decides to put pressure on Israel, historical patterns will not be in his favor. While U.S. presidents have often participated in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, they have never been able to push the parties together unless both sides were already interested in doing so. This is not to say that their presence in negotiations doesn’t matter: Jimmy Carter played a critical role in bridging some final gaps and constructing a sphere of trust between Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, leading to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
But Carter had no ability to bring the two together until Sadat decided, once he became president, to move Egypt out of the Soviet camp and into the American one. To do this, he reasoned, he first had to get U.S. attention by attacking Israel and highlighting the dangers of ignoring the region. Then he carried out his promise to go to Jerusalem in the name of peace. For his part, Begin was eager to take Egypt out of the strategic balance of forces against Israel, while some of his dovish ministers—including Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman—pushed him to seize the opening provided by Sadat.
Similarly, despite exerting an enormous amount of personal prestige and reaching general agreement on key final-status issues, Bill Clinton was unable to overcome Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s domestic political problems and broader strategic goals. He also could not get past PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s reluctance to engage seriously, fear of Palestinian extremists and need to resist the combined American-Israeli pressure on him.
The contemporary moment is even less propitious for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking than normal. Israelis themselves are far less interested in foreign affairs and the conflict with the Palestinians than usual. Their concern of late has been domestic social and economic issues. And in the current election round, no party is campaigning on the issue of peace.
Public opinion surveys indicates that the likely outcome of the election—in which Netanyahu is able to cobble together another right-leaning coalition and retain his position—will mean Obama faces an Israeli government similar to the present one. The decision to run on a joint ticket with the strongly prosettlement Yisrael Beiteinu, combined with the fact that the ticket is currently polling at fewer seats than it has now, will make Netanyahu even more dependent on smaller rightist parties, which in turn will make it harder for him to agree on concessions in peace talks.
Netanyahu might decide to construct a coalition with center and center-left parties Yesh Atid and Labor, but none of these three parties have made the peace process or withdrawal from the West Bank a centerpiece of their campaigns. Labor, in particular, is avoiding the issue in order to rebuild itself after years of decline.
For their part, the Palestinians are in no condition to engage seriously in peace talks. The Palestinian Authority is increasingly weak while Hamas is becoming stronger. Most of the region is focused on other more urgent issues, particularly Iran, the effects of the Arab Awakening, and the Syrian civil war—and Obama is likely more focused on these, as well.
The one area where Obama might compel Israel to act in ways it wouldn’t otherwise is Iran. Israel has been pushing harder for a military strike, but Obama has resisted. While Obama has strengthened sanctions on Iran considerably, he’s been vocal about preventing Iran from achieving nuclear capabilities and keeping the military option on the table, and Netanyahu appears to have agreed that it’s not the time to strike.
One cannot predict what will come to pass in the region. But Obama will have to account for the structural constraints on his ability to influence Israel, and the historical record indicates these are likely to be a factor. Even if Obama wants to impose conditions on Israel, it’s difficult to imagine him having the ability to do so at will.
Brent E. Sasley is assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Middle East and Israeli politics. He blogs at Mideast Matrix and Open Zion. Follow him on Twitter at @besasley.