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Obama’s attack on Netanyahu could backfire at polls

The irony: Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom paper is quoting top Likud officials that accuse President Obama for trying to interfere with Israeli elections.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meeting with AIPAC officials in Jerusalem (photo: Amos Ben Gershom / Government Press Office)

A few weeks ago, a well-known Israeli politician visited one of the large daily newspapers. During a meeting there, this person discussed his meetings with a top-level official in the U.S. administration. “Do the Americans know that the window of opportunity to influence Israelis ends on January 22?” the politician was asked. The answer he gave was somewhat positive.

It seems that the Israeli politician got it right: in an article for Bloomberg, Jewish-American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg quoted White House sources that blamed Israel for not knowing “what its own best interests are.” Goldberg went on to say that:

“The president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.”

As one could expect, the item made the headlines in Israel, and this morning it is the front page story in every paper: Haaretz’s editorial is titled “Listen to Obama.” Yedioth Ahronoth, which is known for going after the Prime Minister personally, has turned Goldberg’s assessment into a direct quote from the president (“Netanyahu is a coward, he is leading Israel to destruction”).

Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom is quoting senior Likud officials who are blaming the President for – the irony! – “trying to interfere with the Israeli elections,” while Maariv is quoting senior AIPAC officials who are estimating that the relations between the U.S. and Israel “will not be hurt.”

Personally I believe that the White House’s move will not have any effect on the elections, or might even backfire. It betrays a certain misunderstanding of the Israeli political behavior, which is not unusual for the current administration. Just as Netanyahu’s support for Mitt Romney was incredibly unpopular with many Americans – even Republicans – a blunt attempt to influence voters one week ahead of the Israeli elections might actually rally many of Netanyahu’s supporters back to him.

Furthermore, Israelis have become used to the “verbal diplomacy” from Washington, much in the way the usual condemnations after each new settlement project are perceived as a political ritual which carries little meaning. The right is actually using those statements today as proof that words are never followed with actions, and that the world is learning to accept the new reality (Naftali Bennett, for example, makes this point exactly in a popular clip where he urges Israel to annex 60 percent of the West Bank).

The people such messages reach are the ones who are not voting for Netanyahu anyway. The prime minister’s coalition of national religious, orthodox, Russian immigrants and lower income Jews is much more indifferent to the nuances of American public diplomacy, and tends to view foreign powers as hostile to Israel to begin with. They might feel that at times when Israel is facing “a hostile” administration, a strong prime minister like Netanyahu, who has shown his ability to manipulate American politics, will actually serve Israeli interests better.

It is worth noting that one of Netanyahu’s election TV spots is titled “When Netanyahu speaks – the world listens.” Among other things, it shows the prime minister’s speech in front of a joint session of Congress, which won him 29 standing ovations. Netanyahu’s didactic and confrontational tone towards the world is not perceived as a problem, but rather as an advantage.

Related:
+972′s Israeli Elections Page
Donald Trump endorses Netanyahu for premiership
A real alternative? Tzipi Livni is far worse than Netanyahu

 

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  • COMMENTS

    1. XYZ

      I recommend reading this long article by David Remnick in “The New Yorker” about Naftali Bennett and the new Israeli Right, to see how liberal American opinion views Naftali Bennett, Moshe Feiglin and the newly assertive Religious Right.

      http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/21/130121fa_fact_remnick

      Noam is correct that Obama’s move could backfire…Bill Clinton did the same in 1996 saying something to the effect that if Israelis knew what was good for them, they would vote for Peres and not for Netanyahu. That endorsement didn’t help Peres in the end.

      BTW-note Tzippi Livni’s comment at the end of the article that an agreement with the Palestinians would lead to massive violence, but we need if for our own good. She also claims that Palestinians have given up the demand for the Right of Return for the Palestinian refugees. I have no idea how she knows this, they certainly don’t say that in public and whatever private remarks made to her by PA officials have no meaning.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      I agree that it is not likely that the comments from the White House will have any meaningful influence on the coming elections. However, long-term effects are probably going to be more significant as Goldberg points out; Israel will find itself more isolated diplomatically.
      Many of us here were hopeful that Obama, upon his election four years ago would provide a new approach to Israel — an approach of “tough love” in which he would not continue his predecessors near blind following of the AIPAC line. We were, of course, highly disappointed. It can only be hoped that the Goldberg article represents a change in direction.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Danny

      1. Interesting that Jeffrey Goldberg is helping the White House take on Netanyahu.
      2. This attack by Obama will not hurt Netanyahu but may help Livni and Yechimovich by giving them an extra platform to attack Bibi and Likud, as well as new talking points for their campaigns. Livni has already started using Obama’s words in her campaign.
      3. All recent moves by Obama (e.g. Kerry, Hagel nominations) point to Bibi’s next stint as PM being a tough one – one that will possibly be quite short. One can only hope and pray that Hagel and Kerry will help Obama to marginalize Bibi and make him irrelevant.

      Reply to Comment
    4. evets

      re: ‘ It betrays a certain misunderstanding of the Israeli political behavior’

      Unless, of course, you’re misunderstanding America’s understanding of Israeli political behavior. The comments aren’t actually intended to sway the vote in this election, which anyone can see is a done deal. They’re probably intended to have some effect down the road. Though Netanyahu’s interference in the U.S elections didn’t help (it probably had no effect) at least that election was potentially winnable for his guy, Romney.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ted

      Dear Noam,

      Appreciate your writing in general, but a question here. Are you really sure this is Obama’s attack, or even the Whitehouse’s attack?

      Reading Golddberg’s article, it is hard to tell what Goldberg is saying, what Obama might have said, what some advsior said, what Goldberg imagined they might say? The sources for the different criticisms are unclear. It’s kind of a weird, rambling opinion piece where it is very hard to tell who is saying what. How did his editors let all this unclarity slip by?

      Are we to beleive that Goldberg regulalry has these heart-to-heart discussions with Obama where Obama reveals his feelings about Israel? Does Goldberg’s past record suggest we should believe him?

      While I know many Isrraeli outlets have written as if this was Obama’s attack, shouldn’t you have higher standards and display more skepticism about the source?

      Ted

      Reply to Comment
    6. Odile

      Whether or not these comments attributed to Obama are true, I can see them backfiring much the same way as Netanyahu’s did during the presidential election in November.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Piotr Berman

      It is hard to tell if Netanyahu’s support for Romney was “incredibly unpopular”, outside the circles of attentive commentators (a rare breed) it was not noticed very much. Probably something like that will happen in Israel.

      To some extend, the aid of rich donors with pro-Israeli manias (like Adelson) did hurt Romney because it wedded him to bellicose rhetoric on Iran which is unpopular.

      By the way, it could be more accurate that Bloomberg (and Sultzberger?) is against right wing drift of Israel rather than Obama who does not say much.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Obama feels obliged to do at least something regarding the Nobel he got.
        Pathetic.

        In Israel it would only strengthen Bibi in my opinion.

        Democrats aren’t particularly popular here, you see.

        Reply to Comment
    8. I don’t think this is a move or ploy by Obama at all. He has shown himself to be immensely practical and certainly knows his view would have no effect at all. Someone just leaked a private conversation (if real), and Goldberg, being a journalist, made a byline out of it.

      I suspect the Administration knows the Bank settlements will continue to expand and that further IDF killings will happen there. If anything, the Administration will try to get Bibi to honor his promises on the Gaza truce (further easing of the blockade), but I suspect Bibi et al won’t do that so much, saying Gaza has the Egypt crossing.

      Thanks for the link, XYZ, above.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        >I suspect the Administration knows the Bank settlements will continue to expand and that further IDF killings will happen there.

        What’s most important is that the Administration knows that “peace” is not on Palestinian agenda, which means that no matter what Israelis do, short of collectively jumping into the Mediterranean Sea, would not bring it to the region.

        Reply to Comment
        • I know you are here to direct readers into correct thought, but I suspect the Administration has a rather different view from yours.

          Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        These kind of leaks do not happen haphazardly. Goldberg would need administration permission to publish the comments or he would never get in the same room with Obama ever again.

        It is Obama expressing displeasure with Bibi and parroting the political positions of Israeli left-wing politicians. The timing is telling as well. It is most certainly meant as an attempt to intervene in the Israeli election on the basis of bad political information being fed to him by his advisers. There is a prevailing perception in some quarters that in a confrontation between an American president and an Israli PM, Israelis will side with the American president. To me this perception seems unconvincing…

        Reply to Comment
    9. TobyR

      Netanyahu will win because a majority in your screwed up country will vote him and his ideological brothers (and sisters) into office. Don’t blame Obama. Accept the reality of the society you’re living in.

      Reply to Comment

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