Following the announcement this week of early elections, several Israeli media outlets have begun examining how the Obama administration might try to influence Israeli voters in the hopes of replacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with whom the administration has had a combative relationship.
The left-wing newspaper Haaretz reported Thursday that while the White House for weeks has been considering taking harsher steps beyond public denouncements against Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, it now faces the dilemma of first making sure the move won’t strengthen Netanyahu in advance of the March vote.
“One of the aspects of this that is being looked into by the U.S. government is whether American action against the settlements at this point would weaken Netanyahu in Israeli public opinion, or do just the opposite, by portraying him as one who doesn’t cave in to international pressure,” Haaretz reported.
When asked about the internal policy debate over new measures against settlements, senior U.S. officials that Haaretz approached “did not deny this, but refused to disclose more details,” while National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan had no comment to the paper.
Even as it may reportedly be debating how its Middle East policy might influence Israeli voters, publicly the administration is staying out of Israeli politics.
“I simply don’t comment on the internal politics of any country, and certainly not of a change in personnel within the government of Israel,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday after Netanyahu fired two ministers and called for new elections. “Israel is our partner and ally and friend, and we will continue to support Israel in the same ways that we have previously.”
Kerry said he hoped whatever government emerges is one “that can negotiate and move towards resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians, and obviously, the differences in the region,” Kerry said.
In an article headlined "Outside forces already at work on influencing outcome of elections," the conservative Jerusalem Post newspaper wrote following Kerry’s remarks, “His comments, and the bulk of comments coming from Washington over the next few months regarding Netanyahu, need now to be seen within the context of trying to influence the Israeli electorate.”
The Jerusalem Post noted the example that just one week before the last Israeli elections in 2013, Bloomberg writer Jeffrey Goldberg quoted President Barack Obama saying privately that, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are,” a clear dig at Netanyahu.
The assertion that the U.S. doesn’t try to influence Israeli elections – and vice versa - “clearly isn’t true” according to Aaron David Miller who was a senior State Department official in both Democratic and Republican administrations, handling the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“We always tried to influence the elections in Israel, but we never succeeded,” Miller told the Israeli news site Ynet.
“We think we understand Israeli politics, but we don’t know how to do it well,” Miller said, adding, “It always worked against us.”
Miller warned the Obama administration of the potential danger in trying to influence Israeli voters this time around, recalling a failed effort in 1996.
"Obama is not popular in the country, in comparison with Clinton who was a president who was loved in Israel and created unprecedented relationships with the leaders and the Israeli public. We wanted to see [then Labor Party leader Shimon] Peres elected and it did not happen. If Obama and Kerry will try to influence - it would be a mistake," Miller told Ynet.
In an essay published Tuesday in Foreign Policy, Miller wrote that the alternative to Netanyahu might be even worse in the view of the U.S. administration.
“I can only imagine what thoughts of a new Israeli prime minister are now dancing in U.S. President Barack Obama's and Secretary of State John Kerry's heads. And they may well believe that an ABB theme -- Anyone But Bibi -- is worth pursuing. But America's great leaders should tread very carefully here before they start interfering in Israel's politics,” Miller wrote. “They may well get a new prime minister, but it may not be the one they want.”
That’s because of the rising popularity of Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious, pro-settlement Jewish Home party who is politically to the right of Netanyahu.
Based on a new poll, Israelis may not be so quick to fall in line with Obama administration preferences.
A poll released Tuesday by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies showed that the percentage of Israelis who believe Obama has a “positive” or “neutral” view of Israel has fallen sharply over the past two years.
The Jerusalem Post reported that 37 percent of Israelis interviewed believe Obama has a “positive” position toward Israel, 37 percent said he had a “negative” attitude toward the country, and 24 percent believe he is “neutral.” In 2012, 51 percent told the research organization that Obama had a positive attitude toward Israel.
On another question, 52 percent of those surveyed said they believe Obama’s policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been “bad,” 50 percent did not like his Iran policy, and 47 percent disapproved of his handling of the Islamic State group, the Jerusalem Post reported.