Open Zion

10.05.12

Bibi's Democrat Problem

Barack Obama may have stumbled in his struggle with Mitt Romney, but in his struggle with Benjamin Netanyahu, he’s going from strength to strength. The latest evidence is the mounting rift between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. A month ago, Haaretz reported that Barak, long considered hawkish on Iran, now opposes an Israeli strike. I have no idea whether that’s true, but what is clear is that Barak has decided to blame Netanyahu—not the Obama administration—for the two governments' recent clashes over Iran.

Why? Partly, as Michael Koplow notes, because Barak is desperately looking for a new niche in the face of upcoming elections that could leave him on the outside of government looking in. But there’s another explanation: In Israel, the partisan divide between Bibi and Barak (who is not even a member of the Labor Party anymore) may no longer be very significant, but in the United States, the partisan divide remains huge.

That’s because while Bibi’s American friends and supporters—going back to the 1980s—have mostly been Republicans (Sheldon Adelson, Ronald Lauder, Arthur Finklestein, William Safire, Charles Krauthammer, Douglas Feith, Irving Moscowitz), Barak’s are Democrats. As Martin Indyk notes in "Innocents Abroad," Clinton sent Bob Shrum, James Carville and Stanley Greenberg to Israel in 1999 to help get Barak elected. And after the failure of the Camp David peace talks the following year, Clinton blamed Yasser Arafat at least in part because he thought it would help Barak fend off an attack from Ariel Sharon in the elections held in early 2001. Barak reportedly remains personally close to the Clintons. And more generally, as one operative deeply plugged into both American and Israeli politics recently told me, “All of Barak’s friends here are Democrats.”   

A key part of the Obama campaign’s reelection strategy with Jewish voters (and donors), as I noted in my book, has been to find Israeli officials willing to vouch for Obama’s pro-Israel credentials. Barak has played along beautifully, telling Wolf Blitzer this summer that “this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past.” And now Barak has gone further: holding a private meeting two weeks with Rahm Emanuel—a man Bibi has long distrusted and feared—about which the prime minister was never informed.

Netanyahu is reportedly furious. But he has no one to blame but himself. When he decided to bed down with the GOP this election season, he should have first made sure that no one else in his government was sleeping with the other side.