The recent U.S. presidential elections were the eighth I have witnessed as an Israeli. Going back to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election, the special and somewhat complex relationship between the United States and Israel has given each campaign an interesting angle in both the Israeli media and the daily street corner or coffee shop discourse. This dynamic fascinates me personally as it provides me with new insights as to how my fellow Israelis view my native America. But none of the past elections came close to the interest and anxious excitement that the Obama-Romney race created.
This can be attributed to the well-publicized divide between the two countries’ leaders that has characterized Obama’s first term. His Cairo and Istanbul speeches and the detached manner in which he related to Israel exacerbated the lack of personal chemistry between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. The result has become known here as “the Gamble.” Netanyahu’s support for his longtime friend Romney (with whom he shares a common benefactor, Sheldon Adelson) and his confrontation with the administration on its approach to Iran as the elections approached, convinced many that Netanyahu was meddling and had laid his bet on a Republican victory.
While no one has offered any hard evidence of interference by Netanyahu, there is no doubt that Netanyahu wanted a Romney victory. Several polls during the campaign indicated a majority of Israelis agreed, even though during Obama’s first term, security cooperation and coordination had reached unprecedented levels. American financial aid to develop and manufacture the Iron Dome missile batteries (which had an amazing success rate of intercepting Hamas rockets before they hit our cities and saving Israeli lives in the recent Gaza conflict), and a significant increase of the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran did little to sway Israeli public opinion.
In a recent Channel 2 news talk show, media consultant and IDF former chief spokesman Avi B’nayahu commented that the “American-Israeli relationship is based on a strategic relationship and a special relationship.” The strategic relationship under Obama is as robust as it has ever been. The special relationship, which Israelis have become accustomed to in almost all administrations since the Nixon years, is nonexistent with Obama.
For Israelis the special relationship is the president’s acknowledgment of what the Jewish people have been through, what we have achieved, how we have suffered and continue to suffer from Arab terror, what Israel has achieved and an appreciation for the unwavering loyalty that Israel has shown America.
While Obama has acknowledged some of this, he has done it in a manner that illustrates a world view vastly different from those of his predecessors. While it is important for the president to appear even-handed and objective to play a crucial mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many of his statements sadly indicate he views Jewish history and Palestinian history as similar narratives.
That the Palestinian leadership embraced Hitler, aligned itself with the Soviet Union and the most notorious anti-American regimes, redefined terror, and continues to incite violence against Israel, Jews and the West in schools and other institutions seems completely lost on Obama.
At least he does seem to internalize the intolerable situation reached in the south of Israel shown by his support for Israel’s “Pillar of Defense” operation in Gaza, but this can be attributed to the “strategic relationship.”
Many understand that decisions in a Romney presidency probably would have been similar to those Obama will make in his second term. Yet this was overlooked due to the tone of the Obama presidency.
Netanyahu knew what a Romney victory would do for his status at home and abroad. Also, a case can be made to justify Netanyahu’s confrontational approach with Obama on the Iranian issue. It also can be argued that Romney would not have pressured Israel against a ground assault in Gaza, a tactic which proved a psychological hindrance to Israel during the conflict and boosted Hamas. Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s actions were clearly a serious gamble that could have severe consequences now that Obama has won a second term.
There is probably some culpability on the part of Netanyahu’s American political guru, Arthur Finkelstein, who projected a Romney victory. But Bibi is smart enough to know the famous saying that “gambling by taking sides in politics is the best way to get nothing for something.” The burning question now amongst Israelis is will Obama somehow punish Netanyahu by trying to influence the Jan. 22 elections in Israel? Judging by Obama’s public support for Israel in Gaza less than two weeks after he defeated Romney, if Obama held a grudge against Netanyahu, then he remembered what Oscar Wilde once said: “Forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”
Writing in Ha’aretz Aluf Ben offered the best analysis: “Relationships between nations depend on interests and not on the hostility or hatred between the two leaders. With all of the loathing between the President and the current Prime Minister, there is no need to expect or hope that Obama will punish Netanyahu because of the latter’s meddling in the campaign and his support for Romney. … Clearly all of this speculation is ridiculous and outrageous.”
Ben goes on to write that in his heart, Obama probably wants to stick it to Bibi but this isn’t a personal matter. “Obama leads a superpower and doesn’t need unnecessary diplomatic fiascos. He knows that Netanyahu is secure in his chair without any serious challengers, and there are too many pressing mutual interests on the agenda such as Iran, Egypt and Gaza, as well as Syria.”
I wonder where the U.S.-Israel relationship is going. I am sure Obama does not have any deep-rooted or traditional anti-Israel bias. However, as someone who grew up and went to college in the states during more or less the same period as Obama, I understand the liberal, humanist orientation Obama represents and how it has shaped his opinion on Israel. I, too, was raised and educated in this ilk. It remains a part of me. But in today’s one-dimensional portrayal of global issues, Israel is hypocritically villainized for an unending list of exaggerated or fabricated transgressions. There is no doubt in the minds of many Israelis, myself included, that this is how Israel is viewed by growing numbers in liberal America.
The recent elections show the overwhelming backing Obama received from the growing number of minorities and immigrants. America seems to be shifting to the left.
While the growing numbers of minorities and immigrants in Israel also support the current leadership here, this is where the parallel ends. Israel’s religious and ultra-religious minorities are quickly becoming a demographic force to be reckoned with, and Russian immigrants are now the largest ethnic group. The one common denominator among these groups is their unwavering support for the ruling right-wing coalition and its policies.
It seems that America is going one way and Israel the opposite. Plenty of Americans are not naïve about the reality that Israel faces, and plenty of Israelis understand that without a mutually negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, the situation is untenable. But the influence and power of these groups are diminishing. I fear that the day may arrive when Israel will sorely miss Obama, and conversely, America will one day remember that Netanyahu’s warnings should have been heeded.
Amidst this pessimism, Israelis always find some optimism. Therefore, let us not forget that a close second place in the mutual-loathing-between-leaders competition is held by Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin, and look what they achieved.
Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.