by Prof. Abraham Ben Zvi
Though the spirits calmed a bit by the time Israel went to the polls, and the president's spokespeople declared that the administration would cooperate with the elected prime minister, whoever that might be, there was not even a sliver of doubt as to which candidate the White House preferred.
On May 26, 1998, in the elections where voters cast separate ballots for the Knesset and for prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres and became the prime minister of Israel, even though Peres' Labor party won 34 seats, two more than Likud's 32.
Netanyahu's victory in 1996 was achieved despite the fact that then-President Bill Clinton's administration fully supported Peres for the position. The administration even convened an international summit in Sharm el-Sheikh dealing with the war on terror, which turned into a comprehensive show of support for Peres' leadership of Israel.
However, once the election was over and it became clear that Netanyahu would be the prime minister, "all the president's men" rushed to align their stance with the new reality and extend a congratulatory and supportive hand to the victor.
Thus, for example, Clinton was quick to call Netanyahu, and invite him to visit the White House in a conciliatory tone. Then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher similarly declared that the White House was expecting a good working relationship with the elected prime minister of Israel.
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Almost two decades have gone by since them, and this time, too, the American administration has adopted a contrarian stance against Netanyahu. The tension between Netanyahu and the administration peaked earlier this month, when Netanyahu visited the U.S. to address Congress about the perils of a nuclear Iran.
The fact that Netanyahu challenged the basic tenets of American policy toward Tehran and actively encouraged American lawmakers to toughen their stance on Iran elicited harsh and explicit criticism from top administration officials, including the president himself. Though the spirits calmed a bit by the time Israel went to the polls, and the president's spokespeople declared that the administration would cooperate with the elected prime minister, whoever that might be, there was not even a sliver of doubt as to which candidate the White House preferred.
The tense relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama goes back to the "Cairo speech" given by the American president in 2009 and continues through Obama's "June 4,1967 borders" speech in 2011, peaking with Netanyahu's speech to Congress earlier this month and the response it elicited in Washington. This begs the question: Will Obama adopt Clinton's conciliatory tone and accept the will of the Israeli voters now that Netanyahu has been re-elected? Initial, though not official, signs indicate that Obama will take a different approach, having had his early hopes for a different Israeli prime minister dashed.
In a recent tweet, former Obama adviser David Axelrod argued that Netanyahu's "shameful 11th hour demagoguery may have swayed enough votes to save him. But at what cost?" Similar sentiments were expressed by Obama's most avid spokesperson in the media, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman wrote an opinion piece that read more like a heartbreaking lamentation than a well-thought-out political analysis. In it he complained bitterly that Netanyahu had won the election even though he explicitly rescinded his commitment to the two-state solution. To Friedman, the fact that this declaration appears to have contributed to Netanyahu's victory represents the end of this key, traditional aspect of American policy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Hours later, the deafening silence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry following Netanyahu's victory served as another early indicator as to Washington's general sentiment.
When the secretary of state, in the midst of talks with the Iranian delegation, was asked for his response to the Israeli election results, he refused to comment and even refrained from even making the most general of statements about the American commitment to cooperate with the new Israeli government.
In stark contrast with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who was quick to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory and to voice the EU's commitment to work with the new Israeli government to "restart the peace process with the Palestinians," Kerry opted to remain silent, and he is not usually the silent type, at least until the president wakes up.
It was only several long hours later that Kerry decided to break the silence and call the prime minister to offer his congratulations. But the statement issued by White House press secretary Josh Earnest was devoid of any jubilation. On the contrary -- it dealt a double blow: First, Earnest promised that Obama would call Netanyahu in the coming days, but not right away. Second, he saw fit to include in his congratulatory statement a rebuke over Netanyahu's use of "divisive rhetoric" against Israel's Arabs, alluding to Netanyahu's remarks on Election Day, when he warned voters that his leadership was in jeopardy because "the Arabs are voting in droves." Earnest added that the U.S. administration would soon "re-evaluate our position and the path forward" in the peace process in light of Netanyahu's objection to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
There is nothing left to do but wait and see whether the American administration will welcome the choice the Israeli voters have made and seek to turn over a new leaf with Netanyahu's fourth government.
Prof. Abraham Ben Zvi
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