President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are effectively stuck with one another in an icy relationship that has defined most of the last six years of U.S.-Israel relations.
“We can expect a long, hard and difficult 21 months ahead,” said Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel think tank in Washington. “It was very obvious the president did not want the prime minister to be victorious in the election. I think President Obama was very angry when he looked at the polls and very, very frustrated.”
It took the Obama administration until mid-afternoon Wednesday to speak publicly about Netanyahu’s Likud party emerging victorious against the Zionist Union, a liberal merger between the Israeli Labor and Hatnuah parties.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would call Netanayhu “in the coming days.” Earnest told reporters in two previous Israeli elections, Obama did not phone Netanyahu until he was directed by the Israeli president to form a government. Netanyahu is still forming a coalition government. But Earnest pointed out Secretary of State John Kerry called to congratulate Netanyahu Wednesday.
Asked whether the call could be characterized as “warm and lengthy” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “It was a brief phone call.”
“Secretary Kerry called the prime minister this morning to congratulate him. Given there is an ongoing government formation process they did not discuss substantive issues,” Psaki said. Pressed on details, she said, “I’m not going to characterize the tone of the call. I wasn’t on the call.”
Though the White House said repeatedly said that Obama was neutral in the Tuesday election, the two leaders have been at odds over various issues including U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran and Israel's Jerusalem settlements. Most recently, Obama did not meet with Netanyahu when he was in Washington earlier this month to address Congress, citing the close proximity to the election.
Stern also worried that Obama’s frustration could lead the administration to be less supportive of Israel at the United Nations, where Israel is frequently fending off hostile resolutions.
“The administration seems to have an agenda and it is not an agenda that is well disposed to the continuing survival of the Jewish state,” Stern told TheBlaze, referring to the Iran deal and the U.N. “I worry we’ll see Israel isolated.”
With Netanyahu's election victory, there is no pathway to make U.S.-Israel relations any easier to manage, said Samuel Stanton, acting chairman of the political science department at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
“Netanyahu has stated in the last 36 hours his unwillingness to see a Palestinian state exist. The existence of a Palestinian state is an end goal of the Obama administration in the region as this administration still seeks to fulfill the promises of the failed Oslo Accords,” Stanton said.
Obama is seeking to bridge the divide between the U.S. and Muslim world, and that effort “begins and ends with how Muslims perceive of U.S. relations with Israel in regard to the question of a Palestinian state," Stanton said.
Although not a U.S. election, the result can be viewed as a defeat for Obama, said Gary Rose, chairman of the political science department at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
“Both the prime minister of Israel and the Republicans can point to the results, even though close, as indicating that President Obama by negotiating a deal with Iran is not working in Israel's best interest or the interest of the U. S.,” Rose said. “Working with the Obama administration will of course continue but the distrust is likely deeper and the relationship even more strained than before. This was a good day for Netanyahu and the GOP in Congress and a very bad day for President Obama.”
Still, much could depend on Netanyahu’s governing coalition in the Knesset, University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said.
“It certainly won't be the first time two world leaders who didn't have a good personal relationship still had to find a way to work together,” Hagle said. “One additional factor will be how hard it will be for Netanyahu to form a ruling coalition? Early reports suggest it won't be all that difficult, but to the extent Netanyahu is limited by local political factors it gives Obama a bit more of an edge in terms of working with him.”
Still, there is a major gap in trust, particularly on Iran, Hagle said.
“As much as Obama has said the U.S. cannot let Iran obtain nuclear weapons, Netanyahu might very well wonder whether this is another ‘red line.’ In other words, what will the U.S. do to prevent it?” Hagle said. “Perhaps more important, should Israel decide to take action on its own to degrade Iran's nuclear capabilities will the U.S. step in to prevent it?”
With the eletion over, another U.S. controversy could continue.
The Senate is reportedly prepared to probe whether the Obama administration used federal dollars to try to help Herzog defeat Netanyahu. This reportedly came through the State Department funding the nonprofit OneVoice Movement, which has an Israeli subsidiary, Victory 15, that sought to oust the prime minister and was advised by an ex-Obama campaign adviser.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest rejected the notion Tuesday that the administration would be involved.
“The administration, since earlier this year, has gone to great lengths to demonstrate our commitment to not interfering in the Israeli elections and the truth is that is a stance that has garnered some criticism,” Earnest said.
This post was updated to include reaction from the Obama administration.