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Four more years of the same for US, Israel on Palestine

Re-elected President Barack Obama is unlikely to do anything to upset Israel, even though he may be sorely tempted to do so.

Barack Obama's victory in the US presidential election was greeted with general unease in Israel. Surveys conducted outside the US shortly before polling day showed Mr Obama was the preferred candidate in every country but two - Pakistan and Israel. But unlike Pakistan, where the two candidates were equally unpopular, he scored just 22 per cent in Israel against a commanding 57 per cent for Mitt Romney.

Given these figures, it is not surprising that Israel's right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made little effort to conceal his political sympathies, laying on a hero's welcome for Mr Romney when he visited Jerusalem in the summer and appearing in several of his TV campaign ads.

Ehud Olmert, a former Israeli prime minister, accused Mr Netanyahu of "spitting" in the American president's face, warning that Israel would now be exposed to Mr Obama's second-term wrath.

The general wisdom is that the US president, freed of worries about being re-elected, will seek his revenge, both for Mr Netanyahu's long-term intransigence in the peace process and for interfering in the US campaign.

Newspaper cartoons summed up the mood last week. The liberal Haaretz newspaper showed a sweating Mr Netanyahu gingerly putting his head into the mouth of an Obama-faced lion, while the right-wing Jerusalem Post had Mr Netanyahu exclaiming "Oh bummer!" as he read the headlines.

The speculation among Israelis and many observers is that a second-term Obama administration will mean greater pressure on Israel, pushing its leaders to make major concessions on Palestinian statehood and to end aggressive posturing towards Iran over its nuclear programme.

Such thinking, however, is fanciful. The White House's approach towards Mr Netanyahu and Israel is unlikely to change significantly.

Certainly, Mr Netanyahu's bullish mood was on display as voting in the US election was under way: his government announced plans to build more than 1,200 homes for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, the presumed capital of a future Palestinian state.

The reality, as Mr Netanyahu understands well, is that President Obama's hands are now tied as firmly in the Middle East as they were during his first term.

Mr Obama got burnt previously when he tried to impose a settlement freeze. There are no grounds for believing that Israel's far-right lobbyists in Washington, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), will give the president an easier ride this time.

And as Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran Israeli commentator, noted, Mr Obama will face the same US Congress, one that has "traditionally been a stronghold of near-unconditional support for Israel".

Mr Obama does not have to worry about re-election but he will not want to hand a poisoned legacy to the next Democratic candidate, nor will he want to mire his own final term in damaging confrontation. Memories are still raw of Bill Clinton's failed gamble to push a peace deal at Camp David in the dying days of his second term.

And whatever his personal antipathy towards the Israeli prime minister, Mr Obama also knows that his policies in the Middle East are either aligned with Israel's or dependent on Mr Netanyahu's cooperation to work.

Both want the Israel-Egypt peace agreement to hold. Both need to ensure the civil war in Syria does not spiral out of control (recent cross-border salvos in the Golan Heights illustrate the dangers). Both prefer conservative regimes in the region over Islamist gains.

And, of course, both want to box Iran in on its nuclear ambitions. So far Mr Netanyahu has reluctantly toed the US line on giving sanctions a chance, toning down his rhetoric about launching an attack. The last thing the White House needs is a sulking Israeli premier priming his cohorts in Washington to undermine US policy.

A sliver of hope for Mr Netanyahu's opponents is that a disgruntled US president still might take limited revenge, turning the tables by interfering in the Israeli elections due in January. He could back more moderate challengers such as Mr Olmert or Tzipi Livni if they choose to run.

Even that would be a gamble. Whatever the make-up of the next Israeli coalition, it will probably espouse policies little different from the current one. That simply reflects the lurch rightward among Israeli voters, as indicated in a poll this month showing that 80 per cent now believe it is impossible to make peace with the Palestinians.

Faced with a popular consensus in Israel and political backing in the US Congress for a hard line with the Palestinians, Mr Obama is an unlikely champion even of the Palestinians' ambition to win observer status at the United Nations. A vote on this matter is currently scheduled for November 29, with Mahmoud Abbas apparently hoping that the anniversary of the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine will provide emotional resonance. Predictably, the US and Israel have threatened economic retaliation if the statehood bid proceeds.

Meanwhile, all Israel's main parties are battling for the large pool of right-wing votes. Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the opposition Labor party, last week denied her party was "left-wing", in a sign of how dirty that word has become in Israel. She has studiously avoided mentioning the Palestinians or diplomatic issues.

The reality is that the White House is stuck with an Israeli government, with or without Mr Netanyahu, that rejects an agreement with the Palestinians. As tensions flare again on the Israel-Gaza border, as they did in the run-up to the last Israeli election, it looks disturbingly like four more years of the same.

 

Jonathan Cook is an independent journalist based in Nazareth

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