"Anyone But Bibi." It's the rallying cry of opponents battling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tuesday's elections, but also seems to aptly sum up feelings in both the US and Europe.
After nine years of dealing with Netanyahu, the wily Israeli politician appears to have outstayed his welcome on both sides of the Atlantic, with leaders exasperated by the repeated failure under his watch of efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Relations between Israel and its traditionally staunch US ally are at an all-time low, and Netanyahu has had a notoriously frosty relationship with President Barack Obama.
Already damaged after Netanyahu abruptly pulled out of a US-led peace bid last April, ties were left in tatters when the Israeli premier took the unprecedented step of addressing Congress earlier this month to attack current nuclear negotiations with Iran.
While the White House said it was staying out of the elections, it has made its anger at Netanyahu abundantly clear, with top administration officials snubbing him during his Washington visit.
In past months there have also been a series of sharp and expletive-laden anonymous exchanges from officials on both sides in the US and Israeli media, revealing in no uncertain terms everyone’s true feelings.
“The notion that we don’t meet with Israeli prime ministers this close to elections is just wrong,” said Middle East expert Aaron David Miller, pointing to White House talks between then Israeli leader Shimon Peres and president Bill Clinton in 1996 just weeks before May polls.
“We meet with Israeli prime ministers whom we like,” insisted Miller, also highlighting that US Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry met Netanyahu’s main challenger Labor leader Isaac Herzog, head of the center-left Zionist Union coalition last month in Munich.
“They have sent any number of signals making it unmistakably clear that Benjamin Netanyahu is screwing up the US-Israeli relationship,” Miller, a former advisor to six secretaries of state and vice president at the Wilson Center, told AFP.
– Europe boycott –
In Europe, the growing perception that Israel opposes Palestinian statehood despite assertions to the contrary is causing support to wane, replaced by a growing boycott and sanction movement.
Netanyahu “has been a bad deal for Israel. It is better off without him,” wrote The Economist magazine in an opinion piece.
Herzog “is not charismatic. But he is level-headed and has a credible security and economic team,” the respected London-based weekly added. “He wants talks with the Palestinians and to heal ties with Mr Obama. He deserves a chance to prove himself.”
Final opinion polls released Friday put Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party four seats behind the Zionist Union.
Israeli politics is notoriously fractured and mercurial. But Miller predicted Netanyahu may be ousted, replaced by a centrist coalition led by Herzog.
If that happens the new Israeli government would present “a kinder, more gentler” face, which may prove less aggressive on issues such as settlements, he said, eyeing a “substantial improvement” in relations with Europe.
But it remains uncertain whether there will be any sustained push to resume peace talks, which could prove a risky proposition for any newly-minted, fragile Herzog-led coalition.
“Those Europeans who want to see increased pressure on the Israelis may be disappointed, because you’ll have an Israeli government that says a lot of very nice things, but will be restrained in many areas and can’t make decisions.”
– New peace moves? –
In a sign that the US still remains invested in a peace process, Kerry Friday met in Egypt with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss creating an environment for new talks.
Washington is increasingly concerned about the viability of the Palestinian Authority, facing possible financial collapse as Israel withholds taxes and donor funds slow.
“We’re not likely to see a major new Israeli initiative to reopen negotiations,” predicted Tamara Coffman Wittes, director of the Brookings Institution center for Middle East policy.
But she highlighted signals that “perhaps administration is considering what it might do on the Israel-Palestinian issue after the Israeli elections.”
Kerry’s former special envoy to the peace talks, Martin Indyk, said he believes that after the elections the US administration “will want to move in one way or another on the Palestinian issue.”
The United States could either work with the next government if it is amenable, or try to internationalize efforts through a new UN Security Council resolution.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has also suggested some kind of expanded peace process, giving a greater role to Arab nations.
“The sense of frustration, the lack of hope, is so strong on both sides, that we need not only to restart the process but … make sure that the process brings some immediate concrete results,” Mogherini said in January.