Living, as he does, on Biblical soil, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to know the Golden Rule. Or at least the version of the Rule that applies to Israeli politics: Never make the Jewish state a partisan player in an American election.
During the campaign season, Netanyahu all but endorsed Mitt Romney. “He inserted himself into the election by presenting himself essentially as a GOP politician,” says Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli journalist and the author of The Unmaking of Israel. In July, Romney visited Israel and received a gushing welcome from Netanyahu, who hosted a private dinner at his home for the Republican challenger. Pro-Romney Super PAC donor Sheldon Adelson is a close friend of Netanyahu.
The prime minister’s office was reportedly stunned by President Obama’s victory, and the left quickly criticized Netanyahu for possibly damaging the country’s most important strategic relationship. The PM scrambled to repair the alliance, calling in the American ambassador for a warm hug; congratulating the re-elected president; emphasizing that the U.S.-Israel relationship remains “rock solid.”
It is no secret in either Israel or the United States that the two leaders are not mutual fans. The president declined the Israeli PM’s request to meet when Netanyahu visited the United States in September; Netanyahu, in turn, has called Obama aides Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod “self-hating Jews.”
While in office, even the Master Networker Bill Clinton had a tense relationship with Netanyahu—he reportedly emerged from their first meeting saying, “Who’s the f***ing superpower here?” But the former president had a genuinely close relationship with former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995. Clinton wrote in his memoirs that he had “rarely loved another man” as much as Rabin.
Whatever Obama’s personal feelings for Netanyahu, the president “has been incredibly supportive of Israeli security and has helped it diplomatically in the international arena,” says Gorenberg. That support has not resonated with the Israeli public: 57% of Jewish Israelis wanted Romney to win in the election, in contrast to the 22% who supported Obama. Those numbers may have influenced Netanyahu’s embrace of the GOP challenger.
It’s not clear what price Netanyahu will pay for backing the wrong horse. The media and Israeli left lambasted him, and Israeli newspapers are carrying headlines mocking him. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is rumored to be seeking reentry into politics, said, “Our prime minister meddled in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire [Adelson], who used the prime minister of Israel to promote his own candidate for president. This is a significant violation of the basic rules in the relations between countries, certainly when we are talking about allies such as Israel and the United States.” But the damage may not be fatal. “The opposition is disorganized,” says Gorenberg. “Netanyahu’s mistakes are real and will be an issue, but it’s not clear how much play his opponents will really get out of it.”
Looking ahead to his legacy, Obama may try to revive the Mideast peace process. That could be trouble for Netanyahu, who is seen as unwilling to seriously negotiate. On the other hand, the issue may not be Netanyahu’s problem by that point. The Israeli election is scheduled for January 22– just one day after President Obama’s second-term inauguration.