Three times in the past 20 years, an Israeli prime minister has headed into an election while openly battling a U.S. president. The first two times the incumbent lost, establishing the Israeli political maxim that endangering relations with Washington was ruinous. In 1999, the loser was Benjamin Netanyahu, who calculated, wrongly, that he could outmaneuver President Bill Clinton by appealing to Congress. Remarkably, a politician known for his caution has now bet his career, and the future of the U.S.-Israel alliance, on the same strategem.
Netanyahu may view his address to Congress on Tuesday primarily as a Churchillian appeal against President Obama’s prospective deal with Iran. But it is also a calculation that something fundamental has changed in Israeli politics, and in U.S.-Israeli relations, in the past 15 years. Netanyahu’s gambit supposes that Obama’s Mideast policies have so alienated Israelis that he will be rewarded rather than punished in the March 17 election for a frontal attack on the White House.
By some measures, the wager looks risky. According to research by Jonathan Rynhold of Israel’s Bar Ilan University, 90 percent of Israelis say close relations with the United States are “vital to Israel’s security.” A majority says Israel should not take military action against Iran without U.S. support – and 54 percent in a recent poll were critical of Netanyahu’s decision to speak to Congress.
To be sure, Israelis also oppose Obama’s policies: A majority says he is wrong about Iran and about the conflict with the Palestinians. Only the Israeli army outranks ties to the United States in importance when Israelis are asked what guarantees their safety.
The White House undoubtedly is aware of those numbers; they help explain why national security adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry have directly attacked Netanyahu in the past week.
Netanyahu, however, may have a better grasp of Israeli politics. Victory in elections there depends not on a party winning a majority of votes but on finishing first in a crowded field and then assembling a coalition. At the moment, polls show Netanyahu’s Likud Party running neck and neck with the leftist bloc led by Isaac Herzog. Either might be able to cobble together a coalition from the nine other parties and blocs. So it’s crucial which one wins more seats and the first chance to cut deals.
That’s where Netanyahu’s speech to Congress might help him. His electoral strategy has been aimed at poaching voters from small parties to the right of Likud. While even the far right in Israel is strongly pro-American, nationalist voters are more likely to support Netanyahu’s tough stand on Iran.
They – and Netanyahu himself – may be wrongly supposing that Americans are as united as Israelis in supporting the alliance. In reality, Rynhold’s research shows a wide gap opening between the U.S. parties on Israel. For example, while 62 percent of Republicans say the United States should support Israel if it attacks Iran, only 33 percent of Democrats agree.
Netanyahu’s speech may well get him the votes he needs to form a new government. But he may also widen that gap between U.S. Democrats and Republicans.
If Netanyahu is defeated, U.S.-Israeli relations may return swiftly to comity. But if Netanyahu succeeds and forms another right-wing coalition, an alliance that has been the heart of American engagement in the Middle East will, like the U.S. relationship with Iran, be headed toward an upheaval.
Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.