Israelis went to the polls Tuesday at a low point in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s relations with the White House after his fiery speech earlier this month before Congress denouncing a possible nuclear deal with Iran.
Republicans bashing Obama have taken to constantly invoking Netanyahu as a symbol of strength against Iran and Islamic terrorism and the prime minister’s willingness to encourage this dynamic when it suited him has caused serious tension in the traditionally nonpartisan pro-Israel community. Critics, including some prominent Democrats who boycotted the address, denounced Netanyahu’s speech as an election ploy.
In the final pre-election polls, however, a centrist alliance between Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni surprisingly surged into a small lead over Likud, putting Netanyahu’s hold in jeopardy. The initial round of exit polls from Israeli media on Tuesday evening show both parties neck and neck, a position that would give Netanyahu an edge in trying to assemble a majority government with smaller right-leaning parties in Israel's coalition system, but no guarantee of success. Netanyahu claimed victory on Twitter, but Herzog's joint party has not conceded.
Democrats will undoubtedly shed few tears if Netanyahu gets the boot. But political observers on both sides of the aisle say they’re unsure how much American politics and policy alike will change if Herzog and Livni prevail. While Republicans have lionized Netanyahu, their support for Israel and use of it as a political cudgel is not dependent on him staying in office.
Israel and the United States have long enjoyed a warm relationship, but Republicans’ especially close ties to Netanyahu as of late are connected to their shared opposition to Iran negotiations and, compared to the White House and Democratic lawmakers, their general lack of interest in a peace agreement with Palestinians. This dynamic is only set to intensify given that Netanyahu is swerving aggressively to the right in the home stretch. For the first time this week, he openly rejected a two-state solution, a framework backed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike, and warned Israelis of an influx of minority Arab voters on Election Day.
On both Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian issue, however, it’s not at all clear whether a Herzog government would be drastically different. While he’s expressed a far less hostile line toward Obama than Netanyahu, Herzog has argued in debates that they’re largely in agreement on the broad threat posed by Iran. And on Palestinian negotiations, Herzog could have a tough time building the political support necessary under Israel's fractured coalition system to pursue the kind of sweeping deal favored by Secretary of State John Kerry even if he wins.
“The truth is neither of the candidates, [Netanyahu] or [Herzog], are radically different in their politics or would take a radically different approach to core issues,” Mik Moore, a veteran strategist for progressive Jewish causes, told msnbc. “The Democrats would be happy to get rid of Bibi, who was openly antagonistic towards the president and the Democratic Party, but both parties will end up being happy to sing the praises of whoever becomes prime minister next.”
Michael Goldfarb, founder of the hawkish Washington Free Beacon and a longtime GOP strategist, also didn’t see much for Republicans to worry about. He noted Herzog’s likely defense minister, Amos Yadlin, is generally regarded as a dependable hawk.
“I don’t think they’re substantially different from where the current government is,” Goldfarb said.
“I think it could be amusing from my point of view if a new government were to come in and we go through the motions again of a peace process and ultimately you get the same result, because there’s this little thing called reality which intercedes,” he added.
That doesn’t mean a Netanyahu loss would be meaningless. It could bring the White House closer to Israeli leadership, potentially giving Israel greater leverage to quietly tweak an Iran deal and denying Republicans some of their power to use Israeli leadership as a political wedge. Even if a peace deal never materializes, a serious effort by Herzog to work with Kerry toward such a goal could reduce tensions as well.
“There will be a lot of anxiety about any Iran deal, but a willingness to work behind close doors to find ways to influence it and provide reassurances for Israel as opposed to a public political confrontation with the president is a game changer,” Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told msnbc. “It will significantly take the heat down on the general relationship.”