A hard-right Israeli coalition would dog ties with US for years

Brian Reeves March 2015
Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

Following Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise landslide victory in the Israeli general election, the new question that has swept the national scene is how the incumbent Prime Minister will compose his ruling coalition. In order to avoid forming a coalition that is unstable or ideologically unsound, he is left with one option: a hard right-wing government. Needing 61 Knesset seats to govern, this option would entail a combination of the Likud (30), his allies on the right (24), and the ultra-Orthodox parties (13).

Despite this support domestically, such a move would spell disaster for Israel on the world stage. Far more than upsetting the EU and the UN—a reality Israelis have long come to stomach—a rightist coalition left unchecked to pursue its objectives would almost inevitably undermine Israel’s already strained relationship with its key ally and financial backer, the United States.

For starters, Netanyahu will have a grueling time keeping his relations with U.S. President Obama afloat. Ties between the leaders have still not had time to mend since the fallout from Netanyahu’s Congressional speech, aggravated by years of discord and undermining. Moreover, if an Israeli report back in January is true, that Obama considered Netanyahu “toast,” one can only imagine how the administration will react if Netanyahu implements the extensive settlement expansion those on the hard right and in his own party have demanded.

With two years left to seal his legacy, Obama seemed positioned to get tough as reports previously indicated he is planning one last initiative to advance the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Now, before that process can even begin, Netanyahu is having to backpedal on his pre-election message that if he was reelected he would ensure that no Palestinian state will be created—a statement that likely helped him peel away precious mandates from the far-right Jewish Home party.

Although Obama may eventually need to take a more accommodative approach to Netanyahu to bring any progress toward resolving the conflict—or at least agreed-upon international parameters—comments from his administration in the post-election period so far indicate that he is committed to ramping up pressure. As some have noted, this pressure could come in the form of supporting a Palestinian state at the UN or simply refraining from shielding Israel from international pressure.

Then there are the Iranian nuclear talks. Having shown little if any remorse during the Congressional speech controversy, Netanyahu will doubtless continue to thwart a deal in any way he can. And yet, any more bold actions from him could again jeopardize the US government’s strong support for Israel at the UN, concerning intelligence sharing, and in other foreseeable ways short of withholding foreign aid.

Assuming a stable right-wing Israel government does not collapse within the next two years, Netanyahu will outlast Obama and find himself with a new American presidential counterpart. In either scenario of a Democrat or Republican taking office in 2016, Netanyahu would still find himself at odds with the White House.

If de facto Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is any measuring stick, her comments during and after her service as Secretary of State reveal that Israel can expect more of the same regarding Obama’s views on Iran, as well as his and her husband Bill’s positions on both the conflict and on Netanyahu personally.

If a Republican is elected as president, history has shown the dynamic between the two nations’ leaders could be even more capricious. Even conservative hardliner George W. Bush—despite the nostalgia in Israel for his presidency—went so far as to counsel Netanyahu’s rival, Tzipi Livni, on how to beat the Likud in the 2009 general election, just as Hillary Clinton had soon afterward. Unconditional and hawkish Republican rhetoric domestically and in Congressional chambers apparently does not translate to the office of the Commander-in-Chief.

Beyond challenges from American presidents down the road, the policy direction that Netanyahu and a hard right-wing coalition would take will likely further erode the American domestic support base for the Israeli government in Congress and among the Jewish community that has long served as a critical component of Israel’s soft power.

The lack of Israeli diplomatic engagement with all sides of the pro-Israel spectrum—including the dovish lobby group, J Street—and staunch disagreements among the U.S. and Israeli governments will transform Israel even more into a divisive issue in the American political arena. Both problems could be significantly mitigated by earnest Israeli efforts to resolve the conflict, yet these would be out of the question for the coalition under discussion.

Netanyahu’s final decision on a coalition may still be weeks away, but if he makes that perilous of decisions to form an all-right-wing government, its probable course of action will risk leaving an indelible stain on ties with the American president, on the bipartisan domestic American support for Israel and on the US-Israel “special relationship” itself.

(originally published in The Hill)

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