What Netanyahu's meddling in US election means for Obama, Romney, and diplomacy
Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the United Nations General Assembly today, where he is expected to reiterate his demands that President Obama set 'red lines' for Iran. It appears Netanyahu is meddling in US presidential elections, fueling rifts with Obama to favor Mitt Romney.
Some observers claim that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to tip the scales against President Obama in the elections this November. Judging by his recent behavior â€“ and based on my own research about how such efforts have played out in other settings â€“ these accusations are probably correct.
The realization that Mr. Netanyahu may be meddling in the American presidential elections could complicate the foreign policy debate on the campaign trail and have repercussions for future diplomacy between the United States and Israel.
At the start of this month, Mr. Netanyahu suddenly beganÂ pushingÂ for Washington to lay down new â€śred linesâ€ť on Iranâ€™s nuclear program. He alsoÂ warnedÂ on Sept. 11 that nations that fail to do so â€śdonâ€™t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."
Despite an immediate effort by President Obama to soothe tensions through aÂ late-night phone callÂ to Netanyahu, the prime minister then went on SundayÂ talkÂ showsÂ to tell the American people that their president was not being tough enough on Iran.
Netanyahuâ€™s dogged efforts to highlight small gaps between the Obama administrationâ€™s position and his own have prompted accusations that he seeks to help elect hisÂ old friendÂ Mitt Romney. Observers who accuse him of meddling include veteran columnists with theÂ The New York Times, theÂ New Yorker,Â Time Magazine, andÂ Haâ€™aretz, as well as Israeli opposition leaderÂ Shaul Mofaz.
Meanwhile,Â otherÂ expertÂ commentatorsÂ believe that Netanyahuâ€™s actions are not aimed at electoral interference. Netanyahu himself felt pressed toÂ reassureÂ observers that â€śIâ€™m not going to be drawn into the American election.â€ť
The problem with authoritatively trying to prove or disprove such accusations right now is that practitioners of partisan intervention have strong incentives at the time to deny their true intentions, casting their support for favored politicians in terms of policy issues instead of personal preference.
In my own studies of partisan intervention in the US-Israel relationship, I have found that it can take years before participants feel comfortable admitting their true intentions. Indeed, I was only recently able to get former American officials on record â€“ and declassified archives confirming â€“ that President George H. W. Bush pursued a determined, conscious campaign in 1992 to get pro-peace candidate Yitzhak Rabin elected Israelâ€™s prime minister.
Still, the current case is brimming with indicators that one of Netanyahuâ€™s private goals may be to shape the US presidential election. For one, he has aÂ fraught relationshipÂ with the incumbent and aÂ longstanding connectionÂ with the challenger.
What seems to be a manufactured crisis over Obama refusing to meet him at the UN is especially telling. This sort of â€śsnub diplomacyâ€ť is a classic feature in many past cases of partisan intervention.
For instance, BillÂ Clinton, AlÂ Gore, and MadeleineÂ AlbrightÂ all floated stories about refusing to meet Netanyahu or his deputies as part of their effort to turn Israeli opinion against the Israeli leader in 1999, hoping to make clear he had lost favor in Washington.
Another consonant sign of partisan interference is Netanyahuâ€™s renewed interest in reaching out to the American people directly through their televisions. It is especially striking that Netanyahu still chose to take his grievances to the public after President Obamaâ€™s telephone call aimed at reconciliation.
Bill Clinton reached out to the Israeli public in much the same way in July of 2000, immediately after the failure of negotiations at Camp David. At Ehud Barakâ€™s request, he used an interview with Israeli TV to help stave off the collapse of Mr. Barakâ€™s pro-peace government in Israel, pledging new concessions for its conduct at the summit and effusively praising Barakâ€™s leadership role.
Netanyahuâ€™s recent sound bites on Iran are already being featured in aÂ million-dollar ad buyÂ attacking Obama in Florida. The group distributing this ad, Secure America Now, is founded by a Republican strategist notorious for having aÂ direct lineÂ to the prime minister, so Netanyahu was probably aware of how such remarks would be utilized by American conservatives.
It has also been widely reported that Netanyahu and Mr. Romney share some key benefactors, most notably Republican super-donor Sheldon Adelson. The casino magnate has announced he may spend as much asÂ $100 millionÂ this year to bring down Obama. He spent nearlyÂ twice that muchÂ launching a free, right-leaning newspaper in Israel that many see as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu.
Netanyahuâ€™s confrontational, exasperated tone toward the Obama administration over Iran makes little sense from a diplomatic standpoint. The Israeli prime minister has already received anÂ unprecedented commitmentÂ that Obama will never let Iran weaponize its nuclear fuel and will use force if necessary to ensure this promise. Unless Netanyahu is calling into question Americaâ€™s ability or the presidentâ€™s word, existing US promises should really be sufficient (if not completely satisfying from an Israeli perspective).
All of these factors suggest that Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to influence the upcoming American presidential election. This is a realization that poses both opportunities and challenges for the presidential campaigns on foreign policy.
Democrats could try to strike back against this controversial behavior by rallying nationalist sentiment against foreign intervention in the US election and accusing Romney of encouraging such meddling. (Netanyahu himself has appealed to his base by accusing Washington of meddling in some past Israeli elections.) However, this could be a risky tactic, since many Jewish American voters tend to view the Israeli premierÂ quite favorably.
Similarly, Republicans could point to Netanyahuâ€™s intentional vote of confidence for their candidate as a sign that Romney is ready for the world stage. However, such a gambit could also backfire by suggesting that Romneyâ€™s domestic standing alone is insufficient for getting him across the finish line.
Regardless of who wins in November, the American president is likely to remember Netanyahuâ€™s conduct during this critical period. In the short term, the prime minister may or may not receive additional concessions from Washington on Iran.Â But once Netanyahu faces his own elections in 2013, he will probably find himself on the receiving end of American intervention, either as retribution or reward.
At the very least, this episode should serve as a potent reminder that international alliances are often messier in practice than most politicians would like to admit.Â
David Andrew Weinberg holds a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and serves as a non-resident fellow with the UCLA Center for Middle East Development. He formerly served as a staff member at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.