Israel election: Benjamin Netanyahu's win is bad for the 'peace process' and for US progress on Iran

Despite the current strains, the deep-rooted US-Israeli relationship will survive

Rupert Cornwell
Wednesday 18 March 2015 19:20 GMT
Uncompromising language: Benjamin Netanyahu
Uncompromising language: Benjamin Netanyahu (Getty Images)

If ever there was a leader of a friendly nation who the US and its main Western allies wanted to lose an election, it was Benjamin Netanyahu. It didn’t happen. Instead, he is in pole position to lead the next Israeli government, and his victory will make it harder than ever to resolve some of the most pressing problems of a Middle East in chaos.

One reason is that long before his unexpected win on Tuesday, his personal relations with many of his foreign peers were already bad – especially with President Obama, leader of Israel’s protector power, whom Mr Netanyahu snubbed when he delivered his address to Congress last month, condemning in advance any deal Mr Obama might strike with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Another is the string of pledges the prime minister made in the closing stages of the campaign, as he pandered to the religious and right-wing nationalist parties that he will need to form a governing coalition.

His vow that there will be no Palestinian state on his watch, and his endorsement of yet more settlements in the occupied West Bank surely render pointless any attempt to revive negotiations on a settlement with the Palestinians – not, it should be said, a startling change given that, since the collapse of the 2014 efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, the so-called “peace process” has been on life-support anyway.

Mr Netanyahu’s uncompromising language will upset both the US and its European allies. Today Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said the EU wanted to work with any incoming Israeli government to relaunch efforts for a peace deal.

The reality is that more European countries, exasperated by the spread of settlements, will be tempted to back the Palestinians’ unilateral drive for statehood – both at the United Nations, and elsewhere. Mr Netanyahu, of course, can reverse his positions. He has always been a pragmatist with a fine nostril for the prevailing winds: his pledges, an Israeli commentator declared, are “like something written on ice on a very hot day”. But at what price to the prime minister’s credibility?

In the US, the repercussions of his win could be even more serious. Mr Netanyahu’s speech to Congress implied that Mr Obama was a naïve incompetent in his dealings with Iran. It aligned him with the Republicans who control both House and Senate. For Democrats, and Jewish Democrats in particular, the occasion forced them to choose between their traditional support for Israel and a president from their own party.

The prime minister’s victory came as US and Iranian negotiators are scrambling to reach a framework agreement slowing Tehran’s progress towards a nuclear weapons capability before next week’s deadline.

Over the coming days there will doubtless be signals from Jerusalem that Mr Netanyahu wants to patch up ties with Washington. Despite the current and scarcely precedented strains, the deep-rooted US-Israeli relationship will survive. All things pass, even Mr Netanyahu.

The fact, however, is that his apparent re-election could make it even more difficult for Mr Obama to block Congressional legislation that would subject any nuclear deal with Iran to prior Senate approval. The president may have received an unexpected boost from the recent open letter to Iran signed by 47 of the 54 Republican Senators warning that any agreement could be overturned by the next administration. It was branded by Democrats, and even some conservative commentators, as a counterproductive interference that played into the hands of Tehran hardliners.

Before that, however, almost enough Democrats were siding with Republicans to create a veto-proof majority of two-thirds in favour of a Bill demanding Senate approval – which would almost certainly not be forthcoming.

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