If it seems that the campaigns for next Tuesday’s election in Israel are turning out to be something of an echo of America's recent presidential elections, it's because they are. Candidates from both the right and the left have begun to fashion themselves and their campaign messages after Barack Obama.
“There is absolutely no embarrassment on the part of Israeli politicians to model themselves after Barack Obama,” says one political consultant.
While most parties haven’t been as blatant in their cribbing of Obama’s message of hope and change as the right-wing Shah Party, which has as its motto “Yes We Can,” overtones ring across Israel. Web banners and fliers for the centrist Kadima Party candidate, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, proclaim “You have a chance to make history.” Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu has broken a long-held party tradition of hiring Republican advisers and instead signed up two former Obama campaign strategists.
“There is absolutely no embarrassment on the part of Israeli politicians to model themselves after Barack Obama,” says Mitchell Barak, a prominent Israeli political consultant and pollster who has worked as a close adviser to Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, as well as for a number of Labor and Kadima leaders. “Whether it's talk about change or to talk about hope, everyone wants to be like Barack Obama, and everyone wants to say that they can work with Barack Obama.”
Obama’s influence on Israel’s election runs deeper than mere visual symmetries. Far more than just a source of borrowed slogans and talking points, Obama has become a political weapon. The Kadima and the left-of-center Labor parties have campaigned on the notion that “Bibi” Netanyahu simply won't be able to get along with Obama. In the Israeli media, the portmanteau “Obibi” is used to describe Netanyahu's rise to front-runner against the backdrop of a liberal American president who might be less than sympathetic to his positions.
But it's not completely clear that even the centrist or left contenders would simply line up for Obama once in the government. Livni has tried the hardest to identify with Obama, going so far as to print campaign leaflets for Hebrew-speaking voters that read, in English, “Believni.” Although Kadima led the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza under Ariel Sharon, there's little indication that Kadima under Livni would follow the same path in the West Bank, no matter how much President Obama might desire such an outcome. “I call it the great lip-service issue,” Barak says. “Nothing more than that—there's no substance to what any of the candidates say regarding settlements.”
In fact, the recent war in Gaza has hardened the security-minded Israeli public to the point where it expects some confrontation with the Obama administration. A recent survey from the US-Israel Institute at the Rabin Center found more than 56 percent of Israelis expect that some confrontation will occur between the Obama administration and the next Israeli government. Seventy percent of people interviewed expect that a Netanyahu-led government would come into conflict with Obama, versus 43 percent if Livni is prime minister and 40 percent if Labor's Ehud Barak wins the elections. Despite this, 62 percent of Israelis said they feel that Netanyahu is the candidate who best understands America.
The Israelis surveyed said their strongest expectation is that Obama will pressure Israel to withdraw from West Bank settlements. A few years ago, this policy would have found broad support among Israeli voters, but amid ongoing rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, which Israel withdrew from in 2005, the public is wary of the consequences of a second withdrawal.
However, some experts say they think that Netanyahu, whose Likud Party is projected to win 29 seats against Kadima's 25, might not be the center-right stalwart that Israelis are looking for. “Netanyahu's past record on holding firm [against American pressure] is not without blemish,” notes Martin Sherman, an Israeli political scientist who serves as academic director of the Jerusalem Summit, referring to a perception among many in Israel that Netanyahu got outmaneuvered by Bill Clinton and his State department. Still, Sherman says the memories of not just the recent Gaza conflict, but also of the war in Lebanon in 2006, could serve to bolster a Netanyahu government against any pressure that President Obama might bring to bear.
With Hamas rockets still striking Israel days before the elections, it's not clear whether Israel is going to turn left or right—or if Barack Obama will be the sort of political hinge the Israeli left is hoping for. Though Israeli candidates keep talking about “change,” we won’t know until Tuesday what form, ultimately, it will take.