Experts foresee decrease in Bibi-Obama tensions
President Barack Obama greets NORPAC president Ben Chouake in an undated photograph.
Photo courtesy NORPAC
November 14, 2012
Along with concerns about budget cuts in social programs, many in the Jewish community are concerned with possible changes in the Obama administration’s relationship with Israel.
One key factor could be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s implicit support of Republican Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the presidential election, and whether that might backfire in the coming months.
But several Middle East experts suggest the tensions between the two leaders will decrease in the coming months.
Daniel Kurtzer, who served as American ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, said he does not “foresee any fundamental change for the worse” in the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama.
Kurtzer, who now holds the S. Daniel Abraham Chair of Middle East Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, told NJJN that Obama and Netanyahu “hit a rough patch and have spent the better part of the past year figuring out ways to improve it, in terms of both their policies and their rhetoric.”
Kurtzer said he would not be surprised “if Obama says he want to reactivate an active peace process by bringing both sides together in a congenial fashion, and not under the threat of pressure. That is probably the lesson he learned from his first term.”
Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, predicted that Netanyahu will be less reluctant to bargain with Obama, even though the president will not be running for reelection. “Obama did relatively well with the Jewish vote. He comes out of the election internationally looking strong and looking like he has some room to shape the agenda. Netanyahu, being a political animal, will see that and adjust accordingly.”
But Zelizer doubts that the president “will pressure Netanyahu to dismantle [West Bank] settlements because that didn’t work. Obama is in a good position, and there is no need to trigger the tensions again.”
“Obama is not someone who looks for retribution; he looks to fulfill his agenda,” said Zelizer. “I think the election victory itself is getting back at Netanyahu.”
Leading up to the election, “Netanyahu backed the wrong horse,” said pollster and strategist Mitchell Barak in Jerusalem after Obama’s victory. “Whoever is elected prime minister is going to have to handle the U.S.-Israel relationship, and we all know Netanyahu is not the right guy,” The New York Times of Nov. 8 reported.
“It is too early to tell how things will flow,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington, DC, office of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Even though he expects no developments until after Israel’s Jan. 22 elections, Daroff said one measure of possible change will come at the United Nations, where the Palestinians are seeking to achieve the status of “non-member observer state” in the 193-member General Assembly.
“It will be an indicator of how loud the Obama administration is in opposition to it,” he told NJJN.
Larry Lerner, a board member of Partners for Progressive Israel who served as president of the organization when it was called Meretz USA, said he believes the president will be too preoccupied with domestic fiscal matters and the Republican-dominated House of Representatives to focus on the Middle East peace process, at least in the immediate future.
“He has too many problems right now,” the Warren attorney told NJJN. “If Netanyahu wins his election, he will be feeling his oats, and I just don’t think Obama has the power to pressure him to negotiate.”
The president of NORPAC, the Englewood-based pro-Israel political action committee, said he is concerned about whether Obama will change his behavior toward Israel.
“Second-term presidents tend to express their ideology a little more vigorously,” said Ben Chouake, saying he fears the possibility of new White House pressures on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians. “The Obama-Netanyahu relationship can always use a little more tender loving care,” he told NJJN.
As he analyzed the election returns, the NORPAC leader said his members will need to “do some educational work with new members of the next Congress.”
“People that we worked with for a long time, like Kent Conrad (D-ND), are gone. That’s a loss. We are forming new relationships, and it’s hard,” said Chouake.
Lamenting the retirement of such stalwart pro-Israel senators as Republicans John Kyl of Arizona and Olympia Snowe of Maine, along with the GOP primary defeat of Indiana’s Richard Lugar, Chouake said, Tea Party members and other right-wing extremists made many Republican candidates unpalatable, even to conservative voters.
“Any party that throws its elder statesmen under the bus is not going to win a majority,” he said.