By Guy Ziv
On Tuesday, Israelis head to the polls to determine the direction of their nation. The outcome of this race will have significant implications for Israel's troubled relationship with the Obama administration. The White House has tried to avoid the appearance of interfering in the elections, while it is clearly hoping that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is replaced with opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union.
President Obama is interested in making a renewed push for reviving the peace process and in securing a nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu has stood in the way of both goals.
Reflecting the public mood, most of the political parties challenging Netanyahu's Likud party have emphasized the staggeringly high cost of living in Israel, for which Netanyahu is largely blamed. Indeed, Israeli TV's Channel 10 published a poll earlier this year showing that for 53 percent of Israelis, the cost of living and welfare issues will be the key voting consideration.
Yet Israelis also attribute tremendous importance to the U.S.-Israel relationship. A recent Israel Democracy Institute survey shows that 83 percent of Israelis see their country as dependent on the United States to a very great or moderately great extent.
The last six years of Netanyahu's premiership have been fraught with tension with the White House due to his bad personal chemistry with Obama, as well as stark policy differences over Iran and the stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Herzog has vowed to repair the damage with the Obama administration and improve Israel's standing in the international community.
The single greatest crisis in U.S.-Israel relations in decades erupted earlier this year when Netanyahu accepted House Speaker John Boehner's controversial invitation to speak before Congress on the Iranian nuclear program. Boehner neglected to coordinate this invitation with the White House and the State Department in a move that was widely perceived as a partisan ploy to undercut Obama's efforts to reach a deal with Iran. Netanyahu, wanting to scuttle the deal, resisted pressure by congressional Democrats and political, diplomatic, and security officials in Israel to cancel his speech, which he delivered just two weeks before the elections.
Netanyahu's screed against the pending deal with Iran angered the White House while failing to influence either Obama or his negotiating partners, who are continuing to work feverishly to cement a deal.
Ironically, the speech did not have any discernible impact on Netanyahu's other intended audience: Israeli voters. Israelis have become inured to Netanyahu's alarmist warnings and exaggerated predictions concerning the Iranian threat. To be sure, they share their prime minister's skepticism about a deal with a regime that has called for Israel's destruction and has a long history of deception and concealment with respect to its nuclear program. Moreover, one recent poll found that 72 percent of Israelis do not trust Obama on Iran.
However, Israelis are traditionally wary of any action by their leader that could potentially damage Israel's relationship with the United States. Herzog joined the chorus criticizing the prime minister, saying his speech "sabotaged Israel's relations with the United States."
The stalled peace process has been Netanyahu's other major bone of contention with the White House. Netanyahu has consistently spoken out against a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps - the basis for the U.S. approach to resolving the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Recently, Netanyahu even disavowed his earlier endorsement of a future Palestinian state. The administration has been particularly irate with the Israeli government's frenetic pace of settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, unilateral activities the White House believes are largely responsible for the failure of the last round of peace talks brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry.
By contrast, Herzog, a firm supporter of a two-state solution, has pledged to make a "100 percent effort" to renew peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians.
The tensions with the White House and, since Netanyahu's speech, with congressional Democrats, have raised serious concerns about whether Netanyahu may have gone too far, subjecting Israel's most important relationship to an unnecessary test. The last time Israelis experienced such a crisis was during the premiership of Yitzhak Shamir, whose settlement policy upset the George H.W. Bush White House. Shamir was voted out of office when he ran for reelection.
Although many Israelis will have the costs of living in mind when they vote, a large number of them will also think about the costs to the U.S.-Israel relationship if Netanyahu is reelected.