The Other Concession Speech: Netanyahu Congratulates Obama

Like his friend Mitt Romney, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quite plainly wanted just one term for Barack Obama. Now, he must move on.

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Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 5, 2012.

At least there was no pretending. In the language of diplomacy, the greeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended to Barack Obama on the occasion of his re-election was “correct” and nothing more. “Prime Minister Netanyahu congratulations U.S. President Barack Obama on his election victory,” read the public statement issued early Wednesday in Jerusalem, setting up a tepid quote from Netanyahu: “The strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S. is stronger than ever. I will continue to work with President Obama to assure the interests that are vital to the security of Israel.” There was no, “Please send my personal congratulations to Michelle and the girls,” as Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, signed off his own official statement, four paragraphs that glowed with the memory of the June evening that Obama draped the Medal of Freedom over the neck of the octogenarian at the White House. (“Mr. President, you represent the future,” Peres wrote, “Your success will be the success of us all.”)

The next word out of Balfour Street, where Netanyahu mulled the returns, was a warning to members of his Likud party to shut up about how they figure the premier might really feel. By then, the deputy speaker of the Knesset had already called Obama “naïve” and vowed Israel would not “surrender” to him.

Rarely has a foreign leader been more visibly linked with the electoral prospects of a U.S. president. Netanyahu, whose relations with Obama run from testy to fraught, showed up in a television ad for Mitt Romney. He welcomed the Republican nominee to a work meeting during Romney’s gaffe-riddled foreign swing, then had Romney and his wife over to dinner. The men worked together at a Boston consulting firm years ago. They shared positions, patrons – the Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson lavishly funded both men’s campaigns – and a keen, if unspoken on the Israeli’s part, desire to see Obama serve only one term.

(MORE: What Should the Middle East Expect from Obama’s Second Term?)

“It seems like it was not such a good morning for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” interior minster Eli Yishai, a leader of the ultra-orthodox religious Shas party, said Wednesday morning. “Well I think that’s an understatement!” a laughing Efraim Inbar, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, tells TIME.  “Everybody knows he was making a bet. A risky bet.”

The risk for Netanyahu is amplified by the timing. Obama won four more years in office just as Netanyahu is beginning his own campaign. In fact, Israelis will go to the polls the day after Obama will be sworn in, a juxtaposition sure to be seized on by political rivals. They were already piling on Wednesday. “After what Netanyahu has done in the past few months – it needs to be asked whether the prime minister has a friend in the White House? I’m not sure,” said former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is considering a return to politics after surviving a corruption trial. He accused Netanyahu of promoting Romney at the behest of the billionaire Adelson. The newly formed Yesh Atid party, a vehicle for former anchorman Yair Lapid, called on Netayahu to “fix his shaky relationship with the administration in Washington. During the US election campaign, the prime minister acted and spoke in a way seen as a gross intervention in favor of the Republican candidate.”

(Update: Thursday morning’s Hebrew language press offered a full menu of recrimination. Under the headline “Netanyahu Gambled, We Will Pay,” Sima Kadmon wrote in Yedioth Aronoth: “In his behavior with the Americans, Netanyahu was like the well-known joke about the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazel—a schlemiel is the one who spills hot soup on the schlimazel. But in this case, Netanyahu is both the schlemiel and the schlimazel: He spilled the hot soup on himself, and he is not the only one who got burned. We all did.”)

The friction between Obama and Netanyahu — as evidenced in photos and footage – is in some ways misleading. In Obama’s first term, U.S. military support for Israel reached new heights, according to Netanyahu’s defense minister, Ehud Barak. But the two governments spent much of the last year sparring over how best to confront the Islamic Republic of Iran over its controversial nuclear program, which many fear will produce atomic weapons.  Netanyahu and Barak openly argue for launching an air strike. In fact, Barak this week confirmed a startling report  that Netanyahu in 2010 tried to order Israel’s military to advance to its highest readiness, effectively preparing for a strike. The order was turned aside by the military chief of staff and Mossad director at the time, who argued it was illegal without a vote of the cabinet.

Obama and his aides, by contrast, insist that crippling economic sanctions imposed against Iran be allowed to run their course, and military action is a last resort.  Direct talks between the U.S. administration and Iran reportedly will begin soon.

(MORE: Obama’s Iran Policy: Why Diplomacy Remains the Likely Course)

“Netanyahu fears Obama will make a deal with the Iranians without conferring with the Israelis, a continuation of the appeasement policy that has characterized his dealings with Iran,” says Inbar, the political scientist. Netanyahu has at times been seen by Israelis as overplaying his hand, but Inbar says most of his fellow countrymen feel secure enough in their essential alliance with America not to fear it can be seriously risked by  Netanyahu favoring Obama’s rival.

“Israelis of course cherish very much their relationship with the United States,” Inbar says. Netanyahu’s support for Romney “could have some influence on our own election. I doubt it will have a strong influence, like causing Netanyahu to lose. If he does, it will be for other reasons.”

Meanwhile, in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent his own letter of congratulations, via the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem. It harked to negotiations with Israel on the once-central issue that has been shunted into the shadows by Iran and other Middle Eastern narratives, such as Syria and Egypt. Abbas has lately been laying the groundwork both for a U.N. General Assembly vote for status as a non-member state — due to occur sometime in November — and to resume direct talks, not least by refraining from insisting that Israel first cease building homes on Palestinian territory in the West Bank. “I think the Israelis should freeze their settlement,” Abbas tells TIME in a Wednesday evening interview.  But  he stops there.

“Obama again,” Abbas says, referring to the results of the U.S. election. “Okay.  He’s the president of the United States of America. We know him. And we hope that he’ll start — restart our contacts with him in order to find a solution. We are optimistic that he’ll do something.”

MORE: Israel’s Coming Elections: Netanyahu Looks Like a Winner–But There May Be Surprises