Does the administration care about the next Israeli government?

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Usually, every change in government in Israel produces intense speculation about  which party and leaders Washington favors, and sometimes  thinly veiled meddling by officials here.  There’s some interest this time around,  but with the Israeli political system in deep limbo, it’s curiously muted.

The reason: there is a growing recognition that the next government in Jerusalem  will be either one that generally supports U.S. goals for the region but is unable to act because of coalition politics – or one that rejects U.S. goals, but probably won’t last very long.

And even if a miracle of Biblical proportions produced an Israeli government willing and able to move forward with a renewed peace process with the Palestinians, the Palestinians themselves are politically divided in a way that  makes genuine progress all but impossible.

No doubt that among the possible choices, the new administration would prefer a Kadima-led unity coalition with Tzipi Livni at the helm, but there are no illusions that she could craft a government capable of bold foreign policy moves – or one that would last long enough to actually get anything done.

A narrow right-wing government under Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu would take positions in stark contrast to those of a new U.S. administration that says Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking will be a top priority this year. But would government be strong enough and last long enough to have much of an impact?  Officials here don’t seem to think so. And there’s the ever present reality that a divided Palestinian leadership is in no position to move forward on the rocky road to peace.

In a way, a Netanyahu government might offer some backhanded advantages to the Obama administration – providing a clear object to push against, thereby reinforcing the administration’s claim that it wants to take a more activist approach to Mideast peacemaking.

If the goal here is to produce the impression of strong U.S. leadership and involvement during an extended period of stasis, a Netanyahu-led government might be more useful to the administration than a weak, hopelessly divided Livni one.

“You can’t push a noodle uphill,” was the way one discourage pro-peace process activist described dealing with a Livni-led government.

The other factor working here is the fact that for the upper echelons of the Obama administration, there’s really only one issue now – an economic emergency that seems to be getting worse, despite staggering bailouts and recovery plans.

There’s no way to overstate the way the unprecedented economic emergency has swamped every other issue at the White House.

Recently Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence, told Congress that a global economic meltdown represents the most serious national security threat facing the nation. It’s not just foreclosures and failing banks at home; it’s the potential of the crisis to destabilize countries around the world and undermine U.S. policy in places like Afghanistan.

While Mideast specialists at the State Department and National Security Council are undoubtedly fretting over Israel’s leadership muddle and the shape of the next  government, the issue probably isn’t at the top of any body’s list at the highest levels of the White House.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.