Bibi and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Ynet/Yediot Achranot main web page says it all. Underneath a picture of an exuberant Michelle Obama, a beaming Barack Obama, a delighted Joe Biden and a happily waving Jill Biden, comes the sobering headline: “Netanyahu Belachatz: Darash MeHasarim V’HaCh’Kim Lo Ledaber Al Obama,” which translates as “Netanyahu Stressed: Ordered His Ministers and MKs Not to Talk About Obama.”

Once again illustrating the problem of having a too-candid Cabinet member whom you cannot fire—or at least whom you believe you cannot fire—Netanyahu’s blunt Interior Minister from Shas, Eli Yishai, confessed: “This is probably not a very good morning for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” And to make matters worse, Israel’s wily, passive-aggressive, smug yet eloquent, elegant and popular elder statesman, President Shimon Peres, spoke in a simple code easily deciphered when he responded to a question about the wisdom of interfering in America’s elections by saying: “There are many wise people in Israel and there are many people who think differently. I prefer to belong to the righteous minority not the erring majority.”

Ouch. While camera crews all over the world captured cheers in England and Australia, in Japan and Kenya, echoing the Democratic cheers when the networks projected an Obama victory, many Israelis were scared and brooding. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blew it. While his intervention in the American election was not the heavy-handed frontal assault his critics contend, his sentiments were too clear for a situation that was so fragile. Many Israelis, be they Netanyahu supporters or detractors, worry about Obama’s revenge—and a further cooling in the two leaders’ already cold alliance.

Even before Obama’s triumphal re-election, many Israelis I know in the once-believing-in-Palestinian-peace-left-but-now-mugged-by-suicide-bombs-and-rockets-center genuinely feared four more years of Obama’s chariness toward Israel, not just toward Bibi. Putting aside all the ridiculous “anti-Israel” and “Israel’s best friend” rhetoric, Obama’s approach toward the Jewish State softened about a year and a half before his re-election, when he needed Jewish support. An Obama running to shape his legacy, and without an electorate to answer to—or money to raise—is, many fear, an Obama who will pressure Israel more aggressively while appeasing Egyptians, Iranians, Syrians, Palestinians, and others in the Arab world more abjectly.

Of course, the fundamentals of the Israel-American relationship remain sound. Security cooperation, economic trade, and, most important of all, popular and political ties, remain rock solid. But Israelis live in a very unpleasant neighborhood and are too dependent on American friendship. And most Israelis are also invested in a vision of American empire that is more in line with Romney’s up-with-America rhetoric than with Obama’s ambiguous and sometimes ambivalent record regarding America’s global position. Most Israelis I know do not just worry about Israel in Obama’s second term—they worry about America in Obama’s second term.

Ultimately, the worry is speculative; events will have to unfold. But second term presidents are both freer and weaker than their first term incarnations. Freed from the prospect of running for re-election, they also slowly bleed out a little power every day, as they march inexorably toward mandatory retirement. An important factor in this mix will be the many Obama supporters who stood up for him. If Obama fails to live up to his commitments and their global claims, it will be their responsibility to lobby him, and convince Obama that part of his play for history must include showing steadfastness in fulfilling political promises, not simply trying to dictate outcomes on the Palestinian question or finessing the stark yes or no question of does Iran go nuclear, or not.