JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders scrambled Wednesday to retract and reword their staunchly pro-Republican statements made during the U.S. presidential campaign, fearful of the fallout that might come with news that President Barack Obama had won a second term in office.
Officials quickly issued standard congratulations for Obama, reminding him of “Israel’s close friendship.” But there was much second-guessing of what many felt had been blatant promotion of the candidacy of Republican Mitt Romney, particularly by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made no secret of his pro-Romney leanings.
"Netanyahu bet on the wrong president and got us into hot water with Obama," declared the opposition Kadima Party in a statement. The Haaretz newspaper openly accused Netanyahu of “interfering grossly, vulgarly and unreservedly in the campaign.” Israeli analysts speculated on whether Obama would find a way to punish Netanyahu for favoring Romney.
Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said that Obama was not likely to ignore Netanyahu’s favoritism.
"I don’t think we can just assume that what happened between them over the past four years will have just evaporated," he said during a panel discussion at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank. "When people fight for their political life and have the perception that their partner is trying to undermine their chances, it’s not going to disappear."
At the same panel, however, current U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said it was “ridiculous” to think that Obama would somehow seek vengeance.
Officially, Netanyahu’s office denied that there was a problem or that he favored one of the American political parties over the other.
"I will continue to work with President Obama to ensure the interests that are vital for the security of Israel’s citizens," Netanyahu said in a short congratulatory statement hailing what he called strong strategic relations with Washington.
But privately, Netanyahu’s office ordered all his top ministers to remain silent on the results of the U.S. elections, fearing negative comment on Obama’s victory. Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon drew criticism Wednesday for his statements that showed two very different positions.
In an English-language statement, Danon, who is deputy speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, congratulated Obama on his victory and asked him to “return to the wise and time-honored policy of ‘zero daylight’ between our respective nations.”
But in another statement released in Hebrew and published by the Jerusalem Post newspaper, Danon took a more acerbic tone. “The State of Israel will not fold (in the face of) Obama. . . . Obama harmed the USA with his leadership of naive and rotten foreign policy, which gives preference to the Arab world instead of the Western world and Israel," the statement said.
The U.S. elections have led the front pages of the Israeli press for more than a week, causing one Yediot Ahronot editorial to declare that “never has a foreign election been so important to the State of Israel.” Israel’s Channel 2 news held its first-ever all-night broadcast to monitor the election results as they arrived in real time.
In that atmosphere, the result spurred much speculation of the impact of Obama and Netanyahu’s frosty relationship on the countries’ relations, with Netanyahu’s critics arguing that Obama can use his second term to take a tougher line with Israel in two areas: Israel’s concerns about Iran and the blocked negotiations with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu already exposed the rift between the two countries over how to deal with Iran in a statement earlier this week in which he said that Obama had failed to set “red lines” for Iran and did not have a “moral right” to stop Israel from attacking Iran over its uranium enrichment program.
Netanyahu is expected to make Iran a central issue in his own re-election campaign, giving the Israeli prime minister many opportunities to question U.S. policy.
Analysts in Israel also believe that Obama is now more likely to push Netanyahu toward a final status agreement with the Palestinians, something Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador, also hinted at.
"It always finds its way back onto the agenda,” Shapiro said of Israeli-Palestinian talks. “You can’t expect this to go away or remain on the back burner. A failure of negotiations will hurt both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
Some in Israel speculate that Obama will ask Israel for its final position papers, including a map that defines the border of a future Palestinian state. Any position that threatens Israel’s West Bank settlements could prove difficult for Netanyahu, especially as he prepares for an election season alongside right-wing ally Avigdor Lieberman, a staunch defender of the settlement movement.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf