As 2013 begins, Israelis are preparing to head to the polls next week for national elections. In so doing they will choose the Knesset (parliament) and Prime Minister they want to lead them into challenging and uncharted waters. The good news: they’ve discovered massive amounts of natural gas that could soon make them energy independent. The bad news: well, how much time do you have?
Israelis see secular nationalist regimes in the Arab world imploding — Egypt, Libya and Syria among them. This is creating new instabilities and security challenges in an already dangerous neighborhood. They know Jordan’s King Abdullah could be toppled by Radicals. They know a war with Iran over nuclear weapons has been mercifully delayed, but may lie just ahead. Most Israelis see their nation being increasingly isolated internationally. In that context, they highly value a strong, healthy U.S.-Israel alliance. However, tensions appear to be spiking once again between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.
President Obama — who clashed repeatedly with Netanyahu over the past four years — has been privately telling colleagues that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Translation: Netanyahu doesn’t know what he’s doing in foreign policy and he risks alienating the White House.
The Israeli Prime Minister disagrees. “I think everyone understands that only Israel’s citizens are those who will be the ones to determine who faithfully represents Israel’s vital interests,” he said said in what the Jerusalem Post called “his first direct response to Obama’s reported criticism.” Netanyahu has offered to sit down and have direct peace talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions. (Abbas refuses to meet.) Netanyahu supports a Palestinian state, so long as it is demilitarized, recognizes the legitimacy and sovereignty of Israel as a Jewish state, and doesn’t not pose a threat to Israel’s security. (Abbas doesn’t believe him and pointedly refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.) But Netanyahu fundamentally disagrees with President Obama’s approach to foreign policy. The President is pressuring Israel to divide Jerusalem, and give away all or most of the West Bank to a Palestinian government allied with the Hamas terrorist movement. The President is pressuring Israel not to take decisive military action to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat. What’s more, the President is claiming that Israeli construction of new homes — or expansion of existing homes — in Jerusalem and in “Area C” portions of the West Bank (where Jewish people live under agreement with the Palestinians) is a fundamental obstacle to making peace.
Next week, Netanyahu and his party are likely to be re-elected. Netanyahu will likely have the opportunity to build a new government. That government will likely be a predominently right-of-center coalition that by-and-large agrees with him on how deal with Iran, the Palestinians and the turmoil in the Arab world. Given that Obama was just reelected — and won’t face voters ever again — and sharply disagrees with Netanyahu’s world view and foreign policy, a troubling showdown, appears to be developing.
Let’s be praying that doesn’t happen. Let’s pray we don’t see a train wreck in U.S.-Israeli relations. Let’s pray the Lord gives wisdom to the leaders of both countries, and that they heed such wisdom. In the meantime, let’s keep our eyes open to the tensions and potential difficulties that lie ahead.
The President’s dismissive quote about the Israeli leadership was quoted in a new column published by Bloomberg and written by Washington-based Mideast expert Jeffrey Goldberg. Let me close with some noteworthy excerpts, though I’d recommend you read the whole thing.
- When informed about the Israeli decision, Obama, who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, didn’t even bother getting angry. He told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart.
- In the weeks after the UN vote, Obama said privately and repeatedly, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation.
- And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah — one that alienates even the affections of the U.S., its last steadfast friend — it won’t survive. Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.
- The dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is poised to enter a new phase. Next week, Israeli voters will probably return Netanyahu to power, this time at the head of a coalition even more intractably right-wing than the one he currently leads.