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November 7, 2012

As Obama takes second term, Israelis wonder what the future holds

http://www.jewishjournal.com/nation/article/as_obama_takes_second_term_israelis_wonder_what_the_future_holds

Haredi Orthodox Jews watching the victory speech of President Obama at the American Center in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Haredi Orthodox Jews watching the victory speech of President Obama at the American Center in Jerusalem, Nov. 7, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Most Israelis were asleep as the polls closed in America and voters waited for the results, but on one rooftop in central Tel Aviv a party with loud classic rock music and flashing lights was going strong.

It was the pro-Obama election-watching party of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party. Deviating from a solidly anti-Obama consensus in Israel -- a poll showed Israeli Jews preferring Republican challenger Mitt Romney over the president, 59 percent to 22 percent -- Meretz’s young members drank, talked and danced around a projection screen alternating between CNN and Israeli news coverage.

For members of Israel’s embattled left, the party was a chance to celebrate liberalism. Attendees wore bright green shirts reading “My heart is leftist” or sporting Obama paraphernalia from 2008. A cheer rose as an Israeli TV station presented a photo slideshow of the president’s life.

“We identify with the progressive values Obama represents,” said Tomer Reznik, 23, chairman of the Young Meretz group. “On one hand he supports Israel, and pushes Israel with the other hand.”

Hours later, past 3 a.m. local time, when the results began coming in from Florida and Ohio, two Israeli political diehards sat at the back of the popular American bar Mike’s Place alongside small groups of American tourists and expatriates.

“I saw the four debates,” said Asaf Chen, 27. “Romney hasn’t been president and he came with lots of promises. Obama had four years to do things and he didn’t exactly do it.”

After it became clear that Obama won the election, Israeli officialdom reacted quickly.

“The security relationship between the United States and Israel is rock solid, and I look forward to working with President Obama to further strengthen this relationship,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement of congratulations. “I look forward to working with him to advance our goals of peace and security.”

President Shimon Peres also offered his congratulations.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has praised Obama more than Netanyahu, said he has “no doubt that the Obama administration will continue its policy -- whereby Israel’s security is at its very foundations -- as well as its efforts to tackle the challenges facing all of us in the region; all the while continuing to strive for further progress in the peace process.”

The Palestinian Authority’s official news service, Wafa, reported that PA President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated Obama and encouraged him to continue pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Political analysts, however, warned that there could be obstacles ahead for the two leaders. Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama has been rocky, with public spats over a freeze on West Bank settlement building and the fight against Iran’s nuclear program punctuating the last four years.

During the campaign, Netanyahu was seen as favoring Romney, and that could open up Netanyahu to attack in the Israeli campaign leading up to the Jan. 22 election.

"Left-wing parties will say Netanyahu committed himself to Romney, and now it’s going to deteriorate the relationship between Israel and the U.S.,” said Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political science professor.

But public pressure from Obama could strengthen Netanyahu’s hand in the Israeli contest, which the incumbent is predicted to win.

“If he’s too rough with Netanyahu, it will be counterproductive,” said Bar-Ilan University professor Shmuel Sandler. “It will make people rally around Netanyahu. People don’t like when someone from outside pressures us.”

In any case, Israeli analysts said Obama is unlikely to rock the boat of mostly positive U.S.-Israeli relations during his second term, both because he has been chastened by his failure to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front and is likely to be preoccupied with domestic concerns.

“Obama at the beginning of the first term is not Obama now,” Diskin said. “Obama was a great believer in all kinds of solutions, and the reality was quite disappointing. Concerning Iran, the Muslim world, the Palestinian Authority, he’s much more sober today.”

Tensions could flare between the two countries should Obama attempt to pressure Israel to make concessions in return for U.S. action on Iran, Sandler said. But Sandler said that any U.S. pressure will come only next year or later, as Obama first must set up his new administration and deal with domestic battles.

“In the two months that remain for him, he’ll be too busy with confirmations, forming his government and the economy,” Sandler said. “He’s not a strong president who can do whatever he wants. He has a divided country.”

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