Israel appears defiant, sensing Obama weakness

The Democrats’ midterm election losses appear to have spurred a shift in a key alliance, with Israel stepping up its resistance to the Obama administration’s Mideast peace initiative and efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

President Obama has pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for months to avoid any move that would set back the peace effort Washington launched Sept. 1. The talks faltered almost immediately over Israel’s refusal to extend a partial freeze on building in disputed territories.

And on Tuesday, Netanyahu issued a defiant statement of support for a new Jewish construction project in disputed East Jerusalem, rebuffing complaints by Obama.

Two days earlier, Netanyahu had delivered a tough speech at a Jewish convention in New Orleans, arguing that Iran needs to be threatened more strongly with military action. His comments suggest growing dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s plan to apply economic sanctions to persuade Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program.


“If the international community, led by the United States, hopes to stop Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to military action, it will have to convince Iran that it is prepared to take action,” he said.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu met with Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the presumed incoming House majority leader, whose staff said that he wanted to work with Netanyahu and “put a check on the administration.”

The statement, first reported by Politico, suggested that Netanyahu may use the Republican-controlled House of Representatives as a counterweight to the White House, as he did during the Clinton administration.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said Netanyahu’s statement on the new construction was intended to show the administration, among other things, that “he thinks they need him more than he needs them.”


It was also designed to show that “he understands the new congressional math, and knows that the next two years are going to be much tougher for Obama,” Miller said.

Israeli officials insisted that Netanyahu’s moves had nothing to do with the midterm elections. And when Netanyahu met Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the two governments issued a statement afterwards describing the meetings as “friendly and productive.”

Yet there were signs even before the midterm elections that Netanyahu had become emboldened by the perception that Obama’s political strength was ebbing.

Not only has Netanyahu been unwilling to hold back construction in the occupied West Bank or East Jerusalem, he has pushed the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a move that Palestinians fear would preempt the right of return for those who fled during the 1948 war.

Shai Feldman, a Mideast specialist at Brandeis University, said Netanyahu at first viewed the Obama administration with some trepidation, believing that the president’s powers as a communicator would give him a strong advantage.

“Something happened to this magician as he went from campaigner to president,” Feldman said. “That has changed Netanyahu’s calculation on whether he can afford a disagreement with the president.”

Israeli leaders typically want harmony with the United States, but Netanyahu appears to have calculated that he can afford intermittent clashes with Washington, and may even benefit from them.

This disagreement has come at a time when there are wide expectations that Obama will review Middle East policy and decide whether he should back away to focus on the U.S. economy. Obama’s view of the Netanyahu government will affect that calculation.


Richter reported from Washington and Sanders from Jerusalem.