Via the Standard, a gloss on Noah’s post this morning marveling at how the left’s salty, bitter tears can taste so sweet. Notice below that White House flack David Simas congratulates Israelis on the election but not Netanyahu on his upset win. Is that a deliberate snub or just SOP? Usually O’s quick out of the chute to congratulate presidential winners like, er, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani. What gives?
Presidents traditionally congratulate an Israeli PM when he succeeds in forming a government. Bibi hasn't done that yet.
— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) March 18, 2015
Jay Carney was also circumspect the day after the last Israeli elections:
— Charlie Spiering (@charliespiering) March 18, 2015
Simas says in the clip that the White House wants to “give space to the formation of that coalition government.” Remember, technically Netanyahu’s continued premiership isn’t assured yet. Likud won 30 seats and needs 61 to govern; in theory, the other parties could walk away and form a majority coalition with liberal Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog. Back in reality, that ain’t happening — the right-wing and religious parties, which together have enough seats to make a majority with Likud, will back Netanyahu before they back Herzog, of course. The White House is holding off on the congrats now either as a pure formality or, perhaps, to draw a contrast with the GOP after Boehner invited Bibi to speak to Congress a few weeks ago. Lefties screeched that that was a way for Republicans to put a finger on Israel’s electoral scale, handing Netanyahu a prestigious global platform to show statesmanship two weeks before the Knesset elections. Obama, by declining to congratulate him now, may be signaling that he refuses to put a finger on the scale too by behaving as though Netanyahu’s coalition is a fait accompli. Even though, realistically, Herzog and the left lost so badly yesterday that there’s no alternative majority coalition they could credibly forge.
Obama will end up calling him, rest assured. As much as the left may despise Netanyahu, Democratic support for Israel is higher now than it’s been in all but one of the past 14 years. Since the rise of Hopenchange in 2008 and the start of O’s frosty relations with Bibi, the GOP has gained seven points among Jewish voters while Democrats have lost 10. That’s not a trend they can afford. Basic politesse will continue even if no one’s under any illusions about the state of the relationship.
Anyway, you tell me: What explains the big Likud upset last night? I’m reluctant to analyze another country’s results since there are a million economic and cultural elements that a distant foreign observer will miss. Everything I read before the vote, though, pointed to Netanyahu being in trouble over kitchen-table issues like the cost of living and affordable housing. And there was nowhere for him to hide on those; he’s been PM for six years, so it’s all on him. The fact that he won comfortably anyway makes me think that foreign policy must have trumped kitchen-table stuff in the end, and if that’s so, then — oh, the irony — it may have been Obama and his nuclear detente with Iran that cinched it. Bibi didn’t say anything in that speech to Congress that Israelis haven’t heard a thousand times and there’s nothing novel about the prime minister of Israel addressing the U.S. legislature. (It wasn’t even Netanyahu’s first address to Congress.) The “GOP finger on the scale” theory feels underwhelming. The left’s excuse du jour, that Netanyahu scaremongered about Arabs turning out to vote in droves yesterday, also seems underwhelming given that Likud backers already had plenty of reasons to panic. The party was predicted to finish several seats behind Zionist Union earlier this week and the Joint List, composed of Arab parties, was steadily polling at 12-14 seats, good for third place. Israelis knew all along that the odds of a ZU/JL coalition were good and that Arab votes would, in fact, be turning out in droves.
What was truly novel in all this is that the White House is, as we speak, on the brink of a deal with a country whose leaders have said they want to wipe Israel off the map that would allow them to ramp up uranium enrichment over the course of 10 years. That’s the likeliest X factor to the vote, it seems to me. How many undecided Israelis went to the polls, faced the fact that this U.S./Iran nuclear bargain really is going to happen, and decided that they’re probably not better off with a liberal who’ll be under tremendous pressure from the left to go along with O on it? If I’m right then it wasn’t so much the speech to Congress that mattered as what triggered it. It’s Obama’s misfortune that his negotiations with his new friends in Tehran came to a head right as Israelis were coming to the polls.
Update: On second thought, maybe this is a deliberate snub.
— Jimmy (@JimmyPrinceton) March 18, 2015
Update: A smart friend who’s forgotten more about Israeli politics than I’ll ever know e-mails:
Bibi didn’t expand the map for the Israeli right. The way he won was by cannibalizing voters from the other right-wing parties, bringing them into the Likud fold over the fear that a poor showing by the Likud mothership, even with a good showing by the daughter ship parties, would hand the premiership to Herzog. That’s why Bibi went hard right in final three days — partially it was GOTV, but really it was about consolidating the right-wing vote around Likud.
Check out the below. Left-hand number is seats won in this election, right-hand is from previous election. The right bloc only gained one more total seat — but Likud gained 12.
Likud 30 (18)
Bennett 8 (13)
Lieberman 6 (12)
TOTAL RIGHT: 44 (43)