March 19, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election declaration not to allow the creation of a Palestinian state could lead to Israel’s further isolation internationally, says Atlantic Council analyst Richard LeBaron.

“That’s not good for Israel, and individual Israelis feel it too,” LeBaron, a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council and former Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, told the New Atlanticist.

As polls showed him trailing his main opponent, the center-left Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu took a sharp right turn in an attempt to fire up his right-wing base for the March 17 election. The Prime Minister reversed himself on the issue of Palestinian statehood and warned his supporters that Arab-Israelis were coming out “in droves” to vote.

The White House criticized Netanyahu’s “divisive rhetoric.”

“Rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive.  And I can tell you that these are views that the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

Netanyahu eventually prevailed in the elections. His Likud party won thirty seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Herzog’s party won twenty-four seats.

Support from Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which won ten seats,will be crucial as Netanyahu now goes about the task of building a coalition. Kulanu includes Michael Oren, Israel’s former Ambassador to the United States and a former Ambassador-in-Residence at the Atlantic Council, who has criticized Netanyahu’s foreign policies.

During Netanyahu’s watch, US-Israeli relations have sunk to their lowest level in recent history. The Prime Minister’s strident opposition to US-led negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and his decision to accept an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to air his concerns before Congress further ratcheted up tensions with the White House.

The ball is now in the next Israeli government’s court when it comes to repairing ties with Washington, said LeBaron.

“It will have to decide whether it wants to mend fences or whether a policy of confrontation with the Obama administration serves perceived Israeli interests. If there is an agreement with Iran on nuclear matters, the Israeli reaction will be a test of how they want to shape relations with the United States going forward,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that damage has been done, and that damage was the result of decisions by the Israeli leadership. The American administration has been extremely generous in supporting Israeli security needs and I wouldn’t expect that to change,” he added.  

LeBaron, who also served as the US Ambassador to Kuwait,shared his comments in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed nuclear talks with Iran, and prior to the election said he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian state. What does his victory mean for the US-Israel relationship, which is already badly frayed?

LeBaron: Nothing is going to change overnight certainly. Netanyahu will need to form a coalition government by bringing in some parties that campaigned against him, but the campaign was mainly on socioeconomic issues not foreign policy. But let’s see how the coalition negotiation comes out.

One of the parties Netanyahu will deal with is Kulanu. Israel’s former Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, is part of that party and was a visiting diplomat at the Council last year. Oren and his party supported a two-state solution, but Kulanu’s platform was mainly economic.

Q: What will be the fallout of Netanyahu’s statement on Palestinian statehood on a Middle East peace process in general, and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank in particular?

LeBaron: The Palestinians are certainly disappointed by the outcome, but in some ways Netanyahu has only confirmed what was evident from his actions or inactions on the peace process over the last several years. But the difficult issue of finding a way for Israelis and Palestinians to live next to each other is not going to suddenly disappear because the Israeli Prime Minister isn’t interested. The international community takes this issue seriously and repudiation by Netanyahu of his own public position could lead to further isolation of Israel in the world community. That’s not good for Israel, and individual Israelis feel it too.

Q: Was the US relationship with Israel, and Netanyahu’s relationship with President Obama, a factor in these elections?

LeBaron: It’s hard to say how the US factor played out.  Remember that Netanyahu called these elections on the assumption that they would be a pretty easy win for him. It turned out positive for Likud, but Netanyahu clearly had to tilt strongly to the right at the end of the campaign to energize his base. Keep in mind also that Israelis were more concerned in this election about issues like the high cost of living and the inability of young married couples to find apartments than they were about security matters.

Q: How can the United States and Israel rebuild their relationship?

LeBaron: I think that’s up to the next Israeli government. It will have to decide whether it wants to mend fences or whether a policy of confrontation with the Obama administration serves perceived Israeli interests. If there is an agreement with Iran on nuclear matters, the Israeli reaction will be a test of how they want to shape relations with the United States going forward. There’s no doubt that damage has been done, and that damage was the result of decisions by the Israeli leadership. The American administration has been extremely generous in supporting Israeli security needs and I wouldn’t expect that to change.   

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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