What does Netanyahu gain by running against Obama?

February 5, 2015

The arguments behind Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to accept the invitation to speak about Iran in Congress are not very convincing. The downside is obvious – while the benefit is questionable. It is not surprising, then, that most experts and pundits greeted the decision with skepticism.

And it is even less surprising that Netanyahu’s critics greeted it with contempt. Their claim against it was simple: he is doing it for political reasons. To benefit himself – not Israel. Or in an even less charitable formulation: he is willing to go as far as to damage Israel to increase his own chance for political gain in Israel's coming elections.

This claim, as I wrote last week, is problematic because it is speculative. The critics have no way of actually knowing that the motivation behind the decision was a political one. They assume that Netanyahu's motivations are such, because they tend to assume the worst whenever Netanyahu is involved.

But this claim is problematic for another reason: to make it reasonable, one has to first prove that Netanyahu can really gain something from speaking in Congress. In other words: to make the political-motivation claim credible one has to show that battling Obama in such a manner is politically beneficial for Netanyahu.

Well, is it?

Several writers were pretty close to saying that it is in recent days, most notably Mark Thiessen of the Washington Post. “Indeed”, he wrote, “the polls in Israel have moved in Netanyahu’s direction since the Obama attacks [on Netanyahu's coming visit] began. Two weeks ago, the opposition Zionist Union was leading by three seats in the Knesset. Last week, its lead had shrunk to two. Now, Likud has pulled ahead by one seat”. Daniel Halper of the Weekly Standard found irony in the idea that the Obama “administration’s meddling in Israeli politics is making [a Netanyahu election defeat]… increasingly less likely”.

Factually, Thiessen is correct. In recent polls the Likud Party is getting stronger. But is this the result of the battle with Obama – or maybe the result of the tension near the Lebanese border, or maybe the result of some miserable errors by Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett?

The evidence is mixed and confusing.

On the one hand, Obama continues to be an American President with remarkably low approval ratings among Israelis. I have written about this phenomenon many times in recent years, and I am quite confident that short of a very dramatic move by the President, the low level of confidence in him among Israelis is not likely to change. Two months ago, a survey by the Begin-Sadat Center found that “Obama's position on Israel is perceived as positive by approximately one third (37%) of the respondents, and as negative by a similar percentage (37%) of respondents… About one quarter (24%) of the respondents attribute to President Obama a neutral attitude towards Israel”. Neutral – in this context – is just a polite way of expressing dissatisfaction, so the total percentage of dissatisfied Israelis should be put at 61%.

Just two days ago, in the Peace Index January survey, 61% of Jewish Israelis said that they believe “there is a high chance that Obama will approve the signing of an agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue even if the Israeli government makes clear that, in its view, the agreement endangers Israeli security”. True, there are still many Israeli who say that Obama is committed to Israel's security. But these are not Netanyahu voters. Among them, the verdict is clear: 100% of self-declared Shas voters, 94% of Bayit Yehudi voters, 93% of Likud voters, and 85% of Yisrael Beytenu voters all agree that there is a high chance that Obama would sign a so-called “bad deal” with Iran.

Still, more than 57% of Israeli Jews (and 55% of Israelis) believe that Netanyahu should not have accepted the invitation to speak in Congress. Half of Jewish Israelis believe that the visit is going to damage Israel's interests. A survey by Prof. Camil Fuchs for Haaretz showed similar results. 46% of Israelis say that Netanyahu “should not go” to Congress if this means “deteriorating relations with the White House”. And only a small minority of Israelis – 19% – believe that the speech can assist in halting Iran's “rush to a nuclear bomb”.

In other words: a majority of Israelis do not see benefit in the speech – a majority believe that it should be canceled. Moreover, a majority bought the claim that the speech is not much more than political maneuvering. “How central to the decision was the timing” – two weeks before Election Day – the Peace Index survey asked. Almost 65% of Israelis said “very central” or “central”. Among Jews it is 67%. Menachem Lazar of Panels Politics told me he got a similar response from voters – it was politics, not policy, that drove Netanyahu to accept the problematic invitation.

What can we say based on all this evidence?

Israelis are not dumb. They don't expect a speech to change realities. Israelis are suspicious of their leaders. They tend to assume that Netanyahu had politics on his mind as he was scheduling the speech. Israelis are not charmed by the invitation. Better, they say, to skip it and not hurt US-Israel relations.

And yet, Israelis are highly suspicious of Obama and thus find it hard to truly be angry with Netanyahu's contrarian approach to relations with him. They agree with Netanyahu's assessment that Obama is going to make a deal with Iran that is bad for Israel. Most importantly, those of them that have the inclination to vote for Netanyahu are not going to abandon him because of the speech.

Could he lose from it? Maybe a few votes.

Could he gain from it? He can possibly gain some votes for his party from within the right-religious bloc of voters.

All in all – and this is another testimony to the abysmal view Israelis have of the Netanyahu-Obama relations – the most likely political outcome of the speech is no significant outcome.

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