Controversy still swirls around whether the timing and statements offered by Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, during the American presidential campaign, were intended to aid Republican candidate, Mitt Romney defeat Barack Obama in his bid for re-election. Although nothing definitive is known of the prime minister's motives, the election outcome, showing that President Obama lost few, if any votes because of his stance on Israel, has, nevertheless not discouraged speculation about Israeli attempts to influence who would become America's next head of state.
But what is surprising is how little speculation has run in the opposite direction: namely, with regard to how the White House has, intentionally or not, inserted itself into the Israeli election scheduled for Jan. 22. The proposed nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), as next secretary of Defense, serves as an example. Although Sen. Hagel has taken positions on Iran and the former "don't ask/don't tell" policy in the military that are at odds with the views of the current administration, he has been scrutinized almost exclusively for what his leadership at the Pentagon might mean for Israel and the prospects both for checking that nation's threats to launch a military strike against Iran and for halting the expansion of Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and on the West Bank.
Never mind that these concerns seem more appropriately linked to candidates for the position of secretary of state. Or ignore the fact that while the senator's supporters insist that his policy differences with the administration should not disqualify him from an appointment, they praise him precisely for these views and not for his mastery of defense planning.
Happily overlooked as well is his rather limited to mediocre administrative experience and record. He managed a Senate office, and according to many past employees, not with any efficiency or particular distinction. This as a prelude to an appointment charged with controlling one of the largest and most complex bureaucratic structures in Washington.
Hagel's purported standing as leading candidate for this significant cabinet position has, surprisingly, drawn little attention in relation to Israel's upcoming election, perhaps because most pundits accept the inevitability of Netanyahu continuing as that nation's prime minister. But that is the wrong way to think of Israeli elections. Netanyahu's victory will depend on a ten-point spread of seats his party can claim after the votes are counted. The closer his party comes to winning 40 seats, the larger the victory; the more it hovers around 30, the bigger the defeat. That Netanyahu will continue as Israel's prime minister is not the pivotal election issue. Whether he wins or loses depends on the array of parties likely to be drawn in to form the next government coalition.
The Israeli parliamentary system requires the prime minister to engage in a complex balancing act to put together a governing coalition. The more written about the need to exert pressure on Israel or appoint people who will not easily find common ground with the nation's security needs, the more likely the support rendered for parties and leaders who promise to bolster security and withstand any outside pressure to structure policies that pose risks for its citizens. The less said, the better chance of Israelis not feeling trapped by the threat of international pressure imposing its writ without full consideration of the dangers lurking on every one of the country's borders.
If a governing coalition can be forged with centrist parties, it may, indeed, restart the moribund peace process or at least broker better relations with the Palestine Authority than Prime Minister Netanyahu has thus far been able to generate. If the coalition is comprised of parties to the right of Likud-Beytenu - as current voting surveys are trending that show significant gains for the Habayit Hayehudi Party - it is not likely to offer the Palestine Authority more than a mere lifeline, at best, or an increase in tensions and hostility, at worst.
The more Israelis see the possibility of a new round of international pressure, the more likely they are to cast their votes for the political leaders promising to stand and hold their ground - precisely the outcome those advocating a resolution of the Middle East conflict should want to avoid and try to avert. The issue is not whether Benjamin Netanyahu is asked to serve another term as Israel's prime minister; the question is in which direction his coalition partners will bend his government's policies.
Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar Family Professor in Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College. Dr. Divine has written on Zionist immigration to Palestine during the British Mandate, analyzing how exile functioned as a contrast to the society created in Palestine during the period of British rule.
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