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Obama's victory and Israel: Five takeaways

The president gets a second chance to challenge the status quo on the Palestinian issue. But will his personal dislike for Netanyahu translate to effective pressure on Israel? I wouldn’t bet on it.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in 2009. Yes, you will have to meet again. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

1. Israel was mentioned 34 times in the final presidential debate, and in the end, it didn’t matter. The Republican strategy in the last four years – going after the White House for “throwing Israel under the bus” – did not hurt Jewish support for the president. According to exit polls, Obama got 70 percent of Jewish votes, a slight decrease from 2008, overall matching the votes he lost with the general public.

There are two possible explanations for the failure: either Jews don’t think about Israel when they cast their ballots, or they didn’t buy the GOP’s story. My guess is more the former than the latter.

2. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Republicans to rethink their alliance with the Israeli hard right. These relations are so deep and strong that they will survive such a hiccup. The GOP and the Likud – the Republikud party – share common values and an ideology which despises human rights, turns its back to the international community and approaches politics with a monolithic and often Islamophobic worldview. The blow this camp and its ideology has suffered is in and of itself a good thing, but there are many battles ahead. So far, the Democrats have allowed the GOP to shape this conversation and have even contributed to the “who is more pro-Israel” contest. Maybe it’s time they stop.

3. In his first term, Obama’s Mideast policy was a complete disaster. The president began by promising not to turn his back to the Palestinians, than tried to confront Israel on the issue of settlements with an empty gun. The last couple of years were embarrassing: not only did the United States fail to reach its own policy goals, the administration ended up vetoing a UN Security Council resolution on the settlements, which used the language found in the State Department’s press releases on the issue.

Will the second term be different? It’s hard to tell. Chances are that it won’t. I think the White House has realized that the Israeli-Palestinian issue costs a lot of political capital, but brings very little results. Furthermore, the administration continues to believe in the Oslo framework, as if two decades haven’t passed. The Palestinian Authority hardly represents anyone these days, the government in Jerusalem is anxious to renew negotiations for the sake of negotiations, and the whole thing is clearly leading nowhere. The only way the White House can move things forward is by confronting the Israeli desire to maintain the current status quo. The undeniable dislike of Benjamin Netanyahu by many in American government will not bring about this change on its own.

A good sign of the president’s intentions could be the people he chooses to appoint to deal with Israel and the Middle East. The first envoy, George Mitchell, didn’t enjoy full support from the administration. He was then replaced with Dennis Ross, who played the role of “Israel’s lawyer” in previous rounds of negotiations, and seems to have been appointed to win back the hearts of Jewish donors and supporters, rather then to end the occupation. Since he left, no high profile figure has dealt with the Palestinian issue. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is planning to go ahead with its UN statehood bid in coming days. It’s a symbolic act, but like the previous round, it will force the administration to take a stand, thus revealing some of its intentions for this term.

4. One sure loser of these elections is Sheldon Adelson. It’s not just the millions he spent on Newt Gingrich and then Romney. Adelson has become a public figure, and a very controversial one, even in Israel. He got nothing for his investment, only bad press.

4. Israelis will hold their elections on January 22. Until now, all polls indicated a Netanyahu victory. Some people, also those within the political system, believe that the U.S. elections can affect Israeli voters, and probably swing a few seats away from the prime mister. I seriously doubt this. Netanyahu would have gained some momentum if Romney had won, and the media would have congratulated him for “picking the right horse.” But Netanyahu had survived the first four years of an Obama presidency, and he can live with another term. Netanyahu might actually sell – at least to the right – the line that only he can guard Israeli interests now that we don’t have a genuine supporter in the White House.

The outcome of the U.S. elections is said to encourage former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to join the local race, but Olmert is yet to reach a final decision, and he has no chance of beating Netanayhu in any case. The GOP suffered some losses tonight, but it will keep the seat in Jerusalem.

UPDATE: Yossi Verter in Haaretz this morning: “If Obama chooses to interfere with Israeli elections, nobody could blame him.” Regarding Adelson, “he made the wrong bet too. You could expect better from someone who made his fortune in gambling.” Ouch.

UPDATE II: Interior Minister Eli Yishai: “It’s not a good morning for Netanyahu.”

Click here for more +972 coverage on the U.S. election

Obama wins election, takes Jewish vote with him 
U.S. elections: The majority voting on the rights of the minority
Just today, forget about the Middle East and vote Obama
‘Pro-Israel’ figures who rebuked Obama now endorse him for president

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    1. XYZ

      The conventional wisdom is that a second-term President is now free of electoral considerations and carry really lean into Israel. Clinton, in fact, did this and he had an added motivation that he wanted a Nobel Peace Prize in order to overshadow his Monica Levinsky-impeachment stain on his legacy. Thus, he invested great time and energy in trying to get an agreement between Israel and Arafat. He also blatantly intervened in Israel’s election in order to get his “new toy” (as he referred to him) Barak elected and it worked. In the end, it all became ashes.
      Obama is not in the same situation. He already has a Nobel Peace Prize, and, he, unlike Clinton, faces serious internal problems with the economy, energy policy, social issues and the such which Clinton, who benefitted from a healthy economy, didn’t have to face. So, we’ll see.
      Noam is one of the more realistic people here at 972, but his screed about the Republicans and the Israeli Right supposedly being against human rights and being Islamophobic are nonsense. I would like to see a “progressive” one time be able to transcend his ideological blinders and discuss political and ideological opponents in a more civilized manner.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        The GOP’s argument that Obama was anti-Israel required too much effort in the face of Obama and his Jewish proxies declaring their ardent love for Israel. I would argue that Obama’s campaign managed to neutralize much of the Israel factor when it comes to American Jews. Given how much polling the Obama campaign did and how strongly he chose to court the pro-Israel vote I would be very hesitant about declaring that American Jews are not thinking about Israel.

        Rami’s point above is also interesting. The public positions taken by Obama and his proxies will shackle him somewhat in future public confrontations with Bibi.

        Bibi’s apparent support for Romney will come back to haunt him in the future. There is a legitimate argument to be made by his Israeli opponents that he is hurting the US/Israeli relationship and there is almost certainly going to be some political payback in the future in terms of American interference in Israeli elections. This will probably be subtle – a photo op here and there and probably some advisers, pollsters and strategists fresh off the Obama campaign will take a long vacation in Tel Aviv lasting until late January.

        As has been obvious for a while, Congress will prevent Obama from making too many waves in the Middle East. It is a highly unproductive morass to wade into anyway, so I doubt that much of a real effort will be made. Romney was entirely correct in stating that this is a kicking the can down the road type of situation.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          That was meant to be a reply to the article, nor XYZ…

          Also XYZ’s comment is right on…

          Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        “but his screed about the Republicans and the Israeli Right supposedly being against human rights and being Islamophobic are nonsense.”
        Not nonsense. Republicans are not pro-life (as they like to claim), but rather anti-choice. Much like Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists, they want to subjugate women and prevent them from making reproductive decisions (something they believe are a man’s inalienable right). They are pro-war, pro-guns, pro-capital-punishment, pro-pollution, pro-1%. They are as anti-life as one can get.
        The Israeli right is as anti-Arab and anti-Islam as one can get, which makes them and Republicans nice bedfellows.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Some Girl

      Here’s the truth though–Netanyahu is also crazy. He works in coordination with the ultra right, he wants to go to war with Iran. Is that something you really want to do? Obama is not anti-Israel in the slightest. He would rather stand as a mediator rather than be anti-arab. Not all arabs are terrorists you know, and in Romney’s eyes they are. I voted for Obama as an American Jew, and I did it with pleasure. Israel is a big girl, she can make decisions on her own without an American President getting in the way all the time. PS what did Bush do? there were two wars in Israel during his time, or don’t you remember?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Rami

      “The Republican strategy in the last four years – going after the White House for “throwing Israel under the bus” – did not hurt Jewish support for the president.”

      Well, I beg to differ. It may not have brought the Republicans the electoral victory, but it sure helped maintaining the usual, one-sided US-Israeli relations, irrespective of who rules in Israel; so much that not even Obama dares to minimally shift the US discourse on Israel/Palestine/war/peace/whatever…thus, an effective strategy to increase the political capital that being involved in a new peace-seeking round (for the sakes of peace-seeking) would cost.

      It does just not matter any longer whether Republicans rule, their discourse already became hegemonic.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Charles-Jerusalem

      I don’t agree with this article’s author:
      Now Barak Obama has nothing to lose. He is not fighting anymore for a new term. So he will implement his vision for which he was elected.
      If he is wise, he will focus first on the US economy and enhancing US presence in Asia/Pacific where the world business moves slowly.
      He will not put too much effort on this region part of Iran knowing that nothing will come out of it.
      But if he has corones, he will put such pressure on Bibi that Bibi will have to resign.
      Perhaps, Shimon Peres will go for a last peace “baroud d’Honneur” for Israel, get the majority and get a deal with our today’s ennemies.
      Bahh I am too naive, he will stay quietly at the presidency.

      Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        You assume that Obama has a vision.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Piotr Berman

      “… but his screed about the Republicans and the Israeli Right supposedly being against human rights and being Islamophobic are nonsense. …”

      EVERYBODY is for human rights. The question is which rights. A few wannabe Senators in USA (they lost, surprise!) have a big human right issue with women getting raped: how to save human life that was conceived in the process. Orthodox Jews and Taliban want to protect the rights of women to stay at home and not to have their pictures shown. Netanyahu is for the human rights of Arabs, and to cheer them up, he wants to attack Iran (Iran is Aryan, while Jews and Arab are Semitic, or some equally logical reason).

      Ximena-Yolanda is perhaps not aware of the movement in GOP to fight “Sharia law in USA”. One of the organizers is certain Yerushalmi who also helpfully lectures why Halacha is much, much better then Sharia. Sharia guys want to wrap a women like a parcel before she goes into a public place, while Halacha guys let her expose face, wrists, and ankles (in socks, I guess) provided that she sits behind them so they do not see her.

      A nice chunk of xenophobia nad Islamophobia was directed personally at Barak Husein Obama and it is scary nonsense. Part of the public accepts it, and a part is revolted.

      I do not expect Obama leading new policies toward Israel, but everybody will assume bad chemistry between him and Netanyahu. Adopting Lieberman as his twin brother will not help here. This will give more room for initiatives from other quarters, like Christian denominations requesting to review aid to Israel — does Israel satisfy requirements written to American laws?

      Reply to Comment
    6. Obama wins. This is what I PREDICTED ALL ALONG. WE NEED A DYNAMIC ORGANIZATION TO REPLACE THE REPUBLICAN JEWISH COALITION . We need to develop rabbis with batzim, kahoonas that will speak out. . I AM READY FOR THAT CHALLENEGE. ORTHODOX RABBIS WERE TOO TIMID OR NOT WILLING TO JOIN Rabbis for Romney and many sided witht Obama. The majority of Jews and their Conservative and reform rabbis also sided with Obama. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG founder and president rabbis for ROMNEY. The great majority OF Israeli wanteded ROMNEY to win.

      Read more: http://forward.com/articles/165546/tough-night-for-sheldon-adelson/#ixzz2BZvZ85js

      Reply to Comment
    7. The Trespasser

      The truth is that it does really matter for Israel who wins the elections.

      Alliance of Israel and USA goes way beyond the scope of authority of any single individual and it is a bit silly to think that Israel totally depends on US presidents good will.

      p.s. Obama still has to earn that Nobel he got 4 years ago, so resolving Arab-Palestinian conflict – or at least creating Palestinian state – would be likely course of actions, so despite alleged bad blood between him and Bibirman there is not much choice.

      Having the three cadavers with a clown of Israeli left and Bibirman + Shas on the right…

      Poor Obama.

      Reply to Comment
    8. iknowwhattoto

      obama can simply ignore israel. full speed ahead with negotiations with iran, open mutual interests sections, leading to full diplomatic relations. a deal on the nukular issue is possible, and we’ll have a new best friend and ally in the region. bibi who?

      Reply to Comment
    9. pelsar

      you get two points for a single sentence of reality:

      The Palestinian Authority hardly represents anyone these days,

      and minus 1000 for the rest of the fantasy in the article. If the PA is useless and they are in fact the pseudo rep of the westbankers (meaning there is no replacement) …then you might want to write that out clearly, and they rewrite your article (assuming you want it to be realistic of course and not something that came out of something your smoking)

      Reply to Comment