Stephen Collinson, AFP
Last updated: 24 January, 2013

After elections, Obama and Netanyahu back to square one

A tempestuous US and Israeli election season left Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu back where they started — staring at each other over a gulf of mistrust and still at odds over Iran.

The US president is in solid political shape after winning a second term in an election in which Netanyahu appeared to root for his foe Mitt Romney, and Republicans used his strained ties with Israel as campaign fodder.

Netanyahu emerged weaker after a rebuke from voters in Tuesday’s polls, but is set to stay on as prime minister, atop a possibly more centrist but less resilient coalition.

So there are new questions for Obama and his soon-to-be secretary of state John Kerry.

— Does Netanyahu’s more perilous position and Obama’s luxury of not having to face voters again offer the White House new leverage over the Israelis?

— Will Netanyahu, who may have paid a price for at the polls for Israel’s increasing isolation, adopt a more conciliatory pose towards Obama?

— How will Netanyahu’s more perilous position impact his strategic calculations as he mulls a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

— Will new centrist factions in Netanyahu’s coalition lend hope to US or Western initiatives on Palestinian statehood?

The answers are on hold until Israeli coalition horsetrading plays out.

For instance, despite the strong showing of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, a right wing group, which would pressure Netanyahu on settlements, could still hold the balance of power.

What is clear is that the power dynamic between Netanyahu and Obama has changed.

“Two years ago, a year ago, even six months ago, the person who seemed guaranteed to be in office for another term was Netanyahu and not Obama,” said Daniel Levy, an Israel analyst at the New America Foundation.

“Obama is now in office until the beginning of 2017 — that would be a bold prediction to make about Netanyahu.”

With elections behind them, Obama and Netanyahu now face the most crucial test of their relationship as they seek to reconcile common views of the Iranian threat but differing perceptions of its imminence.

“2013 is going to be the year that Netanyahu and Obama, not known for their close personal relationship are going to be brought together … and grapple (with) this very pressing question,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Netanyahu wasted no time in naming Iran as his top priority Tuesday, despite having his political wings clipped.

Obama and Netanyahu are at odds over the impact of nuclear sanctions, which Washington says are hammering Tehran’s economy — though they have yet to prompt the Islamic Republic to fold at the negotiating table.

Israel has refused to rule out a unilateral military strike and Netanyahu warned at the United Nations in September Tehran could have enough material for a first bomb by the middle of this year.

Obama, wary of another Middle East war, wants more time for sanctions to squeeze Iran into concessions, but has not ruled out the use of force.

He has repeatedly warned he will not allow Iran to get a “nuclear weapon” — a more elongated timetable than Israel’s position that Tehran should not be allowed to reach the “ability” to make such a bomb.

Netanyahu wants Washington to establish a “red line” for Iran but Obama has been unwilling to publicly box himself in.

Discord is also evident over the Palestinians, after Obama’s first term bid to forge Middle East peace crashed, after Netanyahu balked at his demands to halt settlement building in the West Bank.

Foreigners think a more centrist coalition could convince Netanyahu to be more conciliatory towards Palestinians, though his hands may be tied by his own Likud Party.

But conditions are hardly conducive to peace.

The Palestinians are split between Fatah on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza and Arab Spring revolutions and upheaval in Syria and Egypt have pushed Palestinian statehood down the agenda. Would the White House wage political capital on such faint hopes?

Netanyahu and Obama also lack the personal chemistry that could soften differences.

White House aides disdain Netanyahu’s theatrics during visits to Washington and announcements on settlements sometimes seem timed to cause Obama maximum embarrassment.

The president’s pick for defense secretary Chuck Hagel is also seen as unlikely to green light an Israeli strike on Iran.

The White House does not deny frictions but says ties with Israel are stronger under Obama than ever.

“No leader has met more often with or spent more time on the phone with President Obama than Prime Minister Netanyahu,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

The leaders did work together over the Gaza crisis in November, and it may be that common interests on Iran could belatedly unite them.

“There is no time for pettiness, I think the immensity of the issue is going to drive them to work together,” said Makovsky.