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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem on Jan. 23, 2013. (Darren Whiteside/Associated Press)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement at his office in Jerusalem on Jan. 23, 2013. (Darren Whiteside/Associated Press)

MATTHEW DUSS

Netanyahu’s ballot humiliation can only help Obama’s Israel policy Add to ...

As he begins his second presidential term, Barack Obama will have to confront another leader elected to a second term this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But one consequence of Israel’s surprising election results could be that Mr. Obama’s relations with his Israeli counterpart will prove to be somewhat easier.

Many analysts had predicted that the election would further consolidate the power of Israel’s pro-settlement right wing. But Tuesday’s results show once again the particular ability of Israeli politics to surprise everyone. In this case, it was the impressive showing by political newcomer Yair Lapid, a former newscaster whose centrist party Yesh Atid won 19 seats. Just a month ago, Yesh Atid was predicted to get as few as six seats . Mr. Lapid now finds himself in the unexpected role of kingmaker, expected to be a part of a new coalition headed by Mr. Netanyahu.

As for Mr. Netanyahu, even though his party’s relatively poor showing reveals him to be not quite the “King Bibi” that Time magazine proclaimed him to be last year, the fact is he will serve another term as prime minister, though presiding over a somewhat more politically diverse coalition than many had thought, which means that Mr. Obama must find a way to work with him.

The election could have consequences for the two key policy issues that created the most tension between the two leaders, the Israeli-Paliestinian peace process and Iran, with the former continuing to be a source of strain and the latter becoming slightly less of one.

The peace process was notable mainly for its absence in most of the political debate around the elections. Only two parties, the left-wing Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s center-left Hatnua, made the occupation and need for a two-state solution a major issue. While Mr. Lapid, whose campaign primarily focused on social and economic issues, promised not to join any government that stalled on the peace process, he also said that Jerusalem must remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty (a red line for Palestinians, who hope to establish their own capital in Arab East Jerusalem) – and said so in the sprawling Ariel settlement in the heart of the occupied West Bank.

On the other hand, according to Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary-general of Israel’s Peace Now movement (who also ran as a member of the Labor Party's list),  “Lapid understands the damage that was done to the image of Israel” by Mr. Netanyahu and by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s refusal to engage in the peace process in a serious way, “and he will do his best to make that change.”

At the same time, Mr. Oppenheimer acknowledged, Mr. Lapid “doesn’t have the power to push forward in a major way. So I can see progress, but I don’t see Lapid going all the way [with a peace initiative], at least not for this year. But it’s important and encouraging. It’s more than we had before.” Indeed, on Thursday morning, Mr. Lapid followed through on his campaign promise and announced that a resumption of peace talks is a condition of Yesh Atid entering any governing coalition.

As for Iran, it was clearly Mr. Netanyahu’s hope to have a more hawkish coalition that could help him overcome internal opposition – much of it voiced by Israel’s own security establishment – against a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, something the Obama administration also worked diligently to prevent. Now, having to contend with what will likely be a more centrist coalition, “[i]t will be much more difficult for Netanyahu to go on an adventure,” Mr. Oppenheimer said.

According to Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, Mr. Netanyahu’s relatively poor showing should be understood partly as blowback from his near-endorsement of Mitt Romney during the U.S. elections. Appearing to so clearly favor Mr. Romney over Mr. Obama “looked like a dangerous and unprecedented move that most Israelis didn’t like,” Mr. Barnea said yesterday on a conference call organized by Israel Policy Forum.

Unlike during Mr. Obama’s first term, if Mr. Netanyahu continues fighting with his U.S. counterpart now, “he will lose on all fronts,” Mr. Barnea said. In the view of many Israelis, Mr. Netanyahu tried and failed to prevent Mr. Obama’s re-election. But having been re-elected, Mr. Obama will remain president for a full term, Mr. Barnea said, whereas, in the Israeli system, “Netanyahu could face elections, and Netanyahu knows this.”

While no one should expect Mr. Netanyahu to fully back off on the Iran issue, the results of Tuesday’s elections suggest that he does have a real incentive to demonstrate that he can be a better steward of the U.S.-Israel relationship than he has been over the past four years.

Matthew Duss is a foreign policy analyst based in Washington

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