Bibi’s Choice: Work With Or Defy Obama


With a new Congress convening as Israel holds its national elections, it’s hard to miss the parallel narratives taking place in Washington and Jerusalem, and particularly between the Republican Party here and the dominant Likud Party there.

The intra-party struggles that are playing out are between the conservative mainstream and the right-wing extremists, be they the Tea Party members here or the supporters of Jewish Home, on the rise in the Jewish state, both of which have had a major national impact.

But while the Tea Party surge, which began in 2009 with a call for strong fiscal conservatism and less government influence, appears to be weakening, with key candidates losing in the November elections and party leaders more willing to raise taxes, the religious right-wing influence in Israel is growing stronger.

Naftali Bennett, the 40-year-old charismatic leader of Jewish Home, was the most exciting figure in the otherwise lackluster election campaign in Israel. He managed to attract support from secular as well as religious Jews who want the government to acknowledge and proclaim that the peace process is dead and that it is time to expand settlements, regardless of international opposition.

In the U.S. a key challenge for a re-elected President Barack Obama is to find a way to work with Congress, shedding his aloof attitude and getting into the political give-and-take that produces results. In his inaugural address on Monday he put forth a progressive domestic agenda with an emphasis on gun control, climate change and equal rights for gays that will require at least some level of Republican cooperation if these initiatives are to be successful.

By contrast, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a better chance of choosing the government he works with, though exit polling indicates his options have narrowed. If he forms his coalition majority with right-wing and religious parties, it would no doubt pit him even more confrontationally against Washington, and much of the world, since a significant number of newly elected Knesset members oppose Netanyahu’s call for a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians and want to see more settlement growth.

Fully aware of Israel’s need for U.S. support in confronting Iran as it moves toward developing nuclear arms, Israel’s leader could form a more centrist government by inviting Labor and other center-left parties, which would please Washington and ease tensions. But it would put him on the outs with his base on the right.

The choice in this crucial year seems obvious, though, between settlement expansion and preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

For Netanyahu, who said this week that he would like to serve another term after this one, the question is whether he wants to be remembered as a politician or a statesman. They both are measured in votes, but a statesman also has to have the willingness to take political risks for the national good. Is he prepared to stand up to his critics on the national fringe?

In noting that this Israeli election is primarily about the future of the Israeli political right, Yossi Klein Halevi, the thoughtful journalist and research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, writes that “the struggle for the soul of the Likud isn’t only between pragmatists and ideologues, it is also between those faithful to the party’s democratic roots and those who would betray it.”

He also notes that Netanyahu himself seems torn between pragmatism and ideology, and calls on him to exclude Bennett’s Jewish Home party from the next coalition in favor of the centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), led by Yair Lapid, as a sign of his government’s commitment to the two-state solution.

A close vote will make the next few weeks of political horse trading, as the coalition takes shape, more complex and intriguing. In the meantime, President Obama can play a positive role here by treating Israel as the key ally it is rather than a burden and occasional annoyance, and by focusing on the threat Iran poses not only to Israel but also to human rights and democracy.

This year promises to be a crucial one in the ongoing Washington-Jerusalem relationship. Both leaders need to take more positive and proactive steps toward the other.