Few if any nations follow American domestic politics more avidly than Israel, so reaction here to the death of Osama bin Laden arrived laced with worried warnings to Bibi, as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is universally known. So strained are relations between his government and Barack Obama that the American President’s political boost from killing bin Laden could only be seen as coming out of Netanyahu’s hide. The pleasant sense of elevation the Israeli right experienced with the election of so many Republicans in the mid-term elections is coming down a bit, and with it expectations for the speech Netanyahu will deliver to a joint session in a few weeks. The clear hope was that the address, which would contain some new but cautious formulation of the peace process, would outflank whatever new proposal might soon come out of the White House, which was viewed as both impatient and weak. Monday’s events changed that.
“Yes, there is no doubt that the prime minister was happy about bin Laden’s downfall, but after thinking for a minute, he realized that he was in trouble,” Ben Caspit, a longtime critic of Netanyahu, wrote in the daily Ma’ariv. “Perhaps even big trouble. When he arrives in Washington at the end of the month, he will find a completely different president than he had anticipated. Instead of a lame duck, he will find a black swan. The assassination of bin Laden will have restored Obama’s self-confidence and will have shortened his patience for our kindergarten here in the Middle East. He will need to make an urgent gesture towards the Islamic world, which he tried to appease at the start of his term. Such gestures are usually made at Israel’s expense. Endless deliberations over whether and when to place an American peace plan on the table are liable to be decided, and this will not be a decision that makes Netanyahu happy. Not to mention the fact that Bibi is yet liable to have Barack Obama for a second term. A chilling idea indeed.”
In Yedioth Ahronoth, the estimable Nahum Barnea had the same thought: “Netanyahu was quick to congratulate Obama on the successful operation. He did well to do so. We don’t know what his private thoughts on the matter were. I suspect that he was divided: on the one hand, like most Israelis, he celebrated the victory of good over evil, the sons of light over the sons of darkness. On the other, he realized that the Obama’s political gain is going to make it more difficult for him in his dealings with the US administration.”
On the flip side, Israeli officials were cheered by Hamas’ response to bin Laden’s demise. Ismail Haniyeh, who runs the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, condemned the Americans for their violence and lamented the death of an “Arab holy warrior.” Reports said later in the day a backpedaling Hamas spokesman claimed Haniyeh was mostly irked at the violence, but the damage was done. Netanyahu’s government instructed Israeli embassies to draw attention to the remarks while lobbying against a UN General Assembly vote on nominal Palestinian statehood. The UN campaign has been gaining steam for months, while it was identified solely with the anti-terror Fatah-faction moderates who run the West Bank: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad. But under intense pressure from the Palestinian public, Fatah and Hamas have agreed to form a unity government — they could sign as early as today in Cairo. And in the delicate realm of diplomacy, the joint effort is more than twice as vulnerable when one of the partners is the Islamic Resistance Movement.