posted on Feb, 18 2009 @ 07:05 AM
The surge in support for rightwing nationalist parties in Israel's general election is not the sort of news that US president Barack Obama was hoping
Even if he fails to secure the role of prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, will play a definitive role in formulating the next
government's security and foreign policies.
The unblooded Obama has attached great importance to bringing peace to the Middle East – not just between Israel and the Palestinians, but also in
terms of Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
Netanyahu's approach is more sceptical and world-weary. He makes no secret of his doubts that a two-state solution is achievable. He strongly opposes
returning the Golan Heights to Syria.
Some analysts suggest the sharp contrast between these two personalities could be a problem. Obama is a liberal ex-academic who, to his critics at
least, seems more of a visionary than a doer.
Netanyahu is a former army commando and seasoned political in-fighter, known during the Bush-Cheney era as Israel's leading neocon.
But their records show that both men can be pragmatic when it suits.
Old hands from the Clinton administration remember how tough and "truculent" Netanyahu could be when he was prime minister in the 1990s. Dennis
Ross, a former Middle East envoy, once complained that Netanyahu was "overcome with hubris".
Speaking in Ohio last year, Obama seemed to betray trepidation at the prospect of dealing with the Likud leader.
"I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community (in the US) that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that
you're anti-Israel... That can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel," Obama said.
But the idea that Netanyahu will be unable to get on with the new Democrat in the White House is nonsense, an Israeli diplomat said.
"Netanyahu cares a lot about the US and admires their way of life. He lived there as a child, studied there, one of his former wives was American.
He's very well-connected," the diplomat said.
"He probably would have preferred to have a different US administration. But he will make sure to keep the relationship strong."
Despite the importance both men afford the Palestinian issue, Iran is the subject on which Obama and Netanyahu are likely to focus most sharply.
The Likud leader has described preventing Iran becoming nuclear-armed as his "first mission" and number one priority.
Obama shares that objective. But he is in the process of reaching out to an Iranian leadership that George Bush and Netanyahu worked hard to isolate
and undermine. Israeli rightwingers think the Americans are being naïve.
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post last week, Netanyahu said he had held "positive" meetings with Obama in Jerusalem and Washington that were largely
devoted to Iran.
He said he had urged the US leader to put a time limit on any future negotiations with Tehran, saying such talks must be "closed-ended".
If the talks did not bear fruit within that set period, they should be followed by harsher sanctions and a readiness to take military action, he
All the same, Netanyahu showed his pragmatic side. In other interviews he said he was not opposed to offering economic incentives to Tehran in return
for its abandoning its nuclear programmes. This chimes with Obama's approach.
Whatever the tactics employed to achieve it, he said that he and Obama were fully agreed on the strategic objective: divesting Iran of any current or
future nuclear weapons capability.
Netanyahu's apparently inflexible position on Syria may also be deceptive, Israeli officials say. "What you do in office is often quite different
from what you say in opposition," a diplomat said.
Some analysts suggest that a Netanyahu government might seek a peace deal with Damascus as a way of deflecting American and European pressure over the
West Bank and Palestinian statehood.
It was Netanyahu after all who, as pm