Talk about timing. With the first-ever visit to Israel by Barack Obama coming in just days, the Israelis have finally formed a government behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party didn’t win enough Knesset seats to easily create a coalition. Now, with three parties backing him, Netanyahu can look forward to dealing with his most important and often disruptive ally:
After weeks of deadlock, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday reached an agreement with coalition partners to form the country’s next government, said a spokeswoman for a party involved in the talks.
The new Cabinet appears set to address pressing domestic issues while putting peacemaking with the Palestinians on the back burner.
The three main coalition partners struck a deal after weeks of tough negotiations and were to sign the agreement later Thursday, a spokeswoman for the Yesh Atid party told The Associated Press. She spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.
Reuters quotes a spokeswoman for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, Noga Katz, as saying a deal has been struck. “There is a government,” she told Reuters.
Obama may not like what greets him, under the circumstances. The distaste for Netanyahu in the Obama administration is not exactly a well-kept secret, after all. Obama wants someone who will bend more on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and now the election has forced that issue to “the back burner,” as the AP puts it. And that may be at least in small part thanks to the pressure of Obama’s state visit and the need to form a government before he arrives, too, which makes it a little more exasperating for the White House.
John Kerry has claimed that he wants to make a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians his primary goal as Secretary of State. That won’t be easy when Israel doesn’t have it as a priority for the incoming government. On the other hand, Netanyahu did promise Tzipi Livni the portfolio for those negotiations, and her party agenda is primarily about cutting a peace deal. Perhaps the lower profile of the effort in the upcoming Netanyahu government will work more subtly and effectively than proclaiming it as the centerpiece of policy.
Update: Not that much was going to happen during Obama’s visit anyway, says Adam Kushner at National Journal:
Unlike after the first Gulf War, America no longer has the standing to boss allies around. When Obama said that negotiators should use the 1967 borders as rough guidelines for a deal—the framework accepted by Netanyahu’s predecessors—the premier scoffed publicly. Once, “people took saying ‘no’ to America seriously,” says Aaron David Miller, who advised six secretaries of State on the Middle East and is now a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center. “We’ve come a long way.” Another reason is that Obama won’t use sticks. When he demanded that Netanyahu halt settlement construction (the key Israeli impediment to peace progress), the prime minister simply ignored him. The message: Washington can be disobeyed with impunity.
Ultimately, it’s not clear that sticks would even help. On the political side, although Obama will never face another election, Democrats in Congress have one next year, and they won’t want an extended public break with Israel when legislative control—and the fundraising needed to contest it—is at stake. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden, possible presidential candidates, would likely undermine Obama’s hard line. This time, American pressure wouldn’t help in Israeli politics, either. Voters, who watched the peace process crumble, now feel besieged by Hezbollah, Hamas, Egypt, and Iran. One of Netanyahu’s possible coalition partners opposes a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; the other rejects any kind of Palestinian state.
On the strategic side, unlike Clinton’s relatively placid second term, today’s Middle East agenda is packed with urgent problems—Iranian nukes, Syrian civil war, the Arab Spring. The costs of tampering with the alliance right now (say, a disunified front against Tehran) may outweigh the costs of inaction. Perhaps that’s why Obama, who mentioned Middle East peace often during the 2008 campaign, ignored it in his 2012 convention speech, the debates, his election-night speech, his inaugural, and his State of the Union address. It is now, as Biden put it last week, in our “naked self-interest” to help Israel.
Which is why Obama and Netanyahu won’t spend their time together bickering about borders or settlements. “It’s not focused on specific Middle East peace-process proposals,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said last month. “That is not the purpose of this visit.” In other words, enjoy the photo op.