The Obama administration is not the first to stick itself into an Israeli election process. During the Clinton administration, when for a short period there was a direct election of the prime minster, the White House was happy to send over its most savvy and experienced campaign team, including pollster Stanley Greenberg, James Carville and Bob Shrum, to help Labor Party leader Ehud Barak oust Benjamin Netanyahu in his re-election bid in 1999. The White House had also favored Shimon Peres in his race against Netanyahu in 1996, which Netanyahu narrowly won.
Demonstrating that Democratic U.S. presidents continue to want Netanyahu out of the way, some of the same campaign team from 15 years back, including Stanley Greenberg, are again descending on Israel to help the current Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog try to oust the prime minister in the March 17 elections. Of course, American campaign operatives are free agents, and have not been ordered to report for duty in Israel by either President Barack Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry. But the campaign messaging as to the favored party from the American perspective is nonetheless pretty clear. There was a time when both Democrats and Republicans by and large supported Israel's elected leader, whether that leader was from the Right or the Left, and kept out of Israel's elections. It was generally a bit tougher for American administrations if Israel's leader was from the Right, but today any pretense of equal treatment is long past. The same splits and partisanship which now divide American politics have carried over to how American officials try to participate in and influence Israeli elections.
Both Obama and Netanyahu came into office in 2009. They had vastly different agendas and expectations of each other. Netanyahu wanted America to focus first on stopping Iran's nuclear program, which it considered an existential threat. Obama wanted Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and stop settlement construction. In essence, Obama wanted to bring American policy more into line with that of the Europeans and the "international community," which was always ready to blame the absence of peace on Israel, and in particular on Israeli building in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Obama also wanted something much bigger than a halt to Iran's nuclear program -- but rather a new American and Western relationship with Iran, creating a strategic partnership with the mullahs, much as say Henry Kissinger accomplished with China in the early 1970s.
Obama argued that progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would make it easier for the United States to build a coalition of nations ready to work on addressing Iran's nuclear program. And to achieve that progress in the peace process, first Israel had to stop settlement activity of any kind in the "occupied Palestinian lands." The Obama team, including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made clear that they were opposed to settlement activity even in areas that President George W. Bush, in his letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004, had effectively conceded would remain part of Israel if a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians were reached.
The Obama policy on Iran has been worse than advertised. Every sanctions bill adopted by Congress was weakened after Democrats responded to White House pressure, with generous waivers granted to the administration. Unbeknownst to members of Congress, except a few who were participating in the subterfuge such as then-Senator Kerry, the Americans were busy chasing after Iran to achieve that desired thaw in relations. Of course, the multiyear negotiating process between the P5+1 and Iran has not been pretty to watch, as Kerry and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman have continued a steady drip, drip, drip of weakening resolve in what seems like a desperate effort to sign a deal of some kind, even one that preserves Iran's nuclear capability and processed uranium, ignores Iran's missile program, backtracks on inspections, relaxes sanctions, and at best extends the time frame for a nuclear breakout by a few months. The Obama administration's desire to make old enemies friends has now been extended to Cuba. The policy of reducing ties with long-term allies such as Israel can be seen as either deliberate policy or a necessary consequence, given the other overriding policy objectives such as warming relations with former foes like Iran.
This weekend, the Obama administration let slip exactly how it was working to help its favored candidates in the Knesset elections. After meeting with and talking to candidates from the left-of-center Israeli parties, Kerry indicated that consideration of a new Palestinian Authority-drafted resolution by the Security Council, demanding a complete withdrawal of all Israeli forces from all territories beyond the Green Line by the end of 2017, was a bad idea, since it might harden attitudes among Israeli voters, and lead to more support for Israel's hard-line parties, including Netanyahu's Likud.
"The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the luncheon was confidential, said that Kerry explained that Israel's liberal political leaders, Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni, had expressed concern that a Security Council move to pressure Israel on the eve of election would only strengthen the hands of Israeli hardliners, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett, an implacable foe of a Palestinian state and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home [Habayit Hayehudi] party. Netanyahu is also fiercely opposed to the Palestinians effort to secure Security Council backing for its statehood drive."
Of course, there may be more going on here than the article reveals. The United States did not want to be forced into using its veto at the Security Council to block the resolution, if the PA were able to secure nine votes, an effort that at the moment seems to be falling short. The Obama administration has been reluctant to line up on the opposite side of its European and Third World allies on issues relating to Israel at the U.N., and there is little doubt that the Europeans in particular are anxious at this point to turn the screws on Israel, backed by increasingly strident anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic voices in their own countries, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Having a resolution blocked by the United States at the Security Council would at least give the Europeans an E for effort in their home countries on the one foreign policy issue on which the Continent seems united -- bashing Israel. But delaying consideration of the resolution has a more important purpose, the Americans are telling the Europeans -- preventing Netanyahu from making political hay from it.
In essence, Kerry is using the advice he is receiving from Peres and Livni to persuade the Europeans to join with him in pressuring the Palestinians not to push the resolution until after the Israeli election, when, hint, hint, a new government friendlier to their demands may be in place in Israel. The other implied promise or threat depending on the outcome of the Israeli elections, is that the United States might not use its veto after the elections to block the same or a similar resolution in the Security Council, especially if the Israeli right-wing parties are returned to power.
There has been a stridency in Obama's approach to governing the last few months -- running roughshod over the will of Congress on immigration reform, environmental issues, and Cuba policy to name a few, and seemingly America's voters as well, based on the rejection of his policies in the midterm results. It would be foolish to believe that trouble does not lay ahead for Israel whatever its election outcome, given Obama's minimally concealed contempt for the Jewish state, and in particular its current prime minister. Recent Israeli polling suggests that with almost three months to go (a long time in Israeli politics), the odds favor another government led by a coalition of right-wing parties, probably joined by religious parties.
Israelis elect Israel's leaders, not the White House. The Obama administration, however, seems to be betting that Israelis may be concerned enough about deteriorating relations with Washington, not to give Obama an excuse to be even nastier his last two years -- we will slap you around less if you retire Netanyahu. My guess is that message will not sell. Israelis, like most Americans, have taken the measure of the man who leads America, and increasingly people in both countries don't trust him. The belief is he will slap around anyone who gets in his way, and appeasement is always a bad strategy with bullies.