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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.

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Mitt Romney met with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem July 29. Op-ed contributor David Andrew Weinberg says 'one of Netanyahu’s private goals may be to shape the US presidential election' in favor of Mr. Romney, with whom he has a 'longstanding connection.' This meddling 'could complicate the foreign policy debate on the campaign trail and have repercussions for future diplomacy between the United States and Israel.'

Charles Dharapak/AP

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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 – and based on my own research about how such efforts have played out in other settings – 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 began pushing for Washington to lay down new “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear program. He also warned on Sept. 11 that nations that fail to do so “don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel."

Next, anonymous Israeli sources (and reportedly Netanyahu himself) suggested that Mr. Obama was snubbing Israel’s leader by refusing to meet during the UN General Assembly.

Despite an immediate effort by President Obama to soothe tensions through a late-night phone call to Netanyahu, the prime minister then went on Sunday talk shows to tell the American people that their president was not being tough enough on Iran.

Netanyahu’s dogged efforts to highlight small gaps between the Obama administration’s position and his own have prompted accusations that he seeks to help elect his old friend Mitt Romney. Observers who accuse him of meddling include veteran columnists with the The New York Times, the New YorkerTime Magazine, and Ha’aretz, as well as Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz.

Meanwhile, other expert commentators believe that Netanyahu’s actions are not aimed at electoral interference. Netanyahu himself felt pressed to reassure observers that “I’m not going to be drawn into the American election.”

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 – and declassified archives confirming – that President George H. W. Bush pursued a determined, conscious campaign in 1992 to get pro-peace candidate Yitzhak Rabin elected Israel’s prime minister.

Still, the current case is brimming with indicators that one of Netanyahu’s private goals may be to shape the US presidential election. For one, he has a fraught relationship with the incumbent and a longstanding connection 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 “snub diplomacy” is a classic feature in many past cases of partisan intervention.

For instance, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Madeleine Albright 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.

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