BY JONATHAN TOBIN, COMMENTARY—
With the approval of the outgoing Knesset, Israel is moving toward early elections that will send its people to the polls on September 4. The decision will allow a new government to be in place in advance of the U.S. presidential contest that will take place two months later. If Israeli opinion polls are correct that will mean even if President Obama is re-elected, he still will be faced with his old antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu as his counterpart in the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Since Obama spent much of his first term seeking to undermine if not oust Netanyahu from office, the timing of the elections may be no coincidence. Past American presidents such as the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton sought to intervene in Israeli elections to procure a more pliant Israeli negotiating partner. But with Obama fighting hard to hold onto Jewish votes by assuming the pose of Israel’s best friend, he dare not take a swipe at Netanyahu before the September vote. Given the lopsided result that pollsters expect, it might not make a difference even if he did try it.
Some kibbitzers have asserted that Israeli polls that show Netanyahu’s coalition gaining seats should not be misinterpreted as a personal mandate for the prime minister, as his Likud Party is likely to get only 30 or 31 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. That’s a foolish argument. If that is how the voting goes, such a result would still place Likud as the largest party by far and in position to command an easy majority with its normal coalition partners. Due to its proportional voting system, no party has ever won a majority on its own. But a new poll sponsored by the left-wing Haaretz newspaper shows Netanyahu is also the overwhelming choice of Israelis to be their prime minister.
In the poll, Israeli voters were asked which of the several party leaders they wanted to see become prime minister. Despite the multiple choices available, nearly a majority — 48 percent — chose Netanyahu. His closest competitor was Labor Party head Shelly Yacimovich at 15 percent. The only others to register anything beyond minimal support were Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman (who serves as Netanyahu’s foreign minister) at 9 percent and Kadima’s new leader Shaul Mofaz, who got only 6 percent despite his claim to be the only viable alternative to the incumbent.
The survey also asked Israelis what they thought of the criticisms of former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak were “messianics” who aren’t fit to lead the country. That result will also give no comfort to Netanyahu’s foreign and domestic critics who have hyped the story about Diskin as it noted Israelis disagree with the assertion by a 51-25 percent margin.
While four months can be a lifetime in politics, given the utter lack of support for Netanyahu’s putative rivals, his re-election is close to a lock. This has to frustrate Obama, who has made his distaste for Netanyahu no secret. It also sets up a possible timetable for the confrontation with Iran that may not conform to the president’s plans.
As some of Netanyahu’s Israeli critics have noted, the timing of the Israeli election probably takes an attack on Iran off the table until after September. But that was the case anyway. An Israeli strike while the P5+1 talks with Iran were ongoing was always unthinkable. But that does leave a window of two months between the two elections that might allow an Israeli offensive against Iranian nuclear targets in advance of the U.S. elections, a juxtaposition that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Obama to oppose or punish Israel for such a decision.
Count me among the skeptics that Israel would choose to act unilaterally under those seemingly favorable circumstances. But Iran notwithstanding, by securing his re-election in advance of 2013, Netanyahu is ensuring that a U.S. president will not be able to use his clout to try and get him defeated the way Clinton did in both 1996 and 1999. Netanyahu’s overwhelming democratic mandate will largely insulate him against U.S. pressure even if Obama is also re-elected.