Israel election: What will the Democrats do if Bibi wins?

What Will the Democrats Do if Bibi Wins?

What Will the Democrats Do if Bibi Wins?

The Slatest
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March 17 2015 12:47 PM

What Will the Democrats Do if Bibi Wins?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote during Israel's parliamentary elections in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015.

Photo by Sebastian Scheiner/AFP/Getty Images

As I noted Monday, the reaction from Democrats will be nearly euphoric if Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni manage to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu in Tuesday’s Israeli election. (Update, March 18, 8:07 a.m.: They didn’t.) Republicans, meanwhile, may not be quite as enthusiastic about a prime minister who says he trusts the Obama administration to look out for Israel’s interests. But the trickier question is how Democrats will react if Bibi beats the odds yet again and hangs on.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.

Over the past year or so, the prime minister has done everything in his power to make life uncomfortable for “pro-Israel” Democrats in both the White House and Congress (which is basically all of them). And in the past few days, in a desperate move to hold on to the office, he’s intensified his intransigence, warning ominously about the high numbers of Arab voters in this year’s election as well as making explicit that he will never agree to the formation of a Palestinian state.

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In a piece Tuesday morning, New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait writes that in the closing weeks of his campaign, Netanyahu has thrown down a gauntlet that will permanently alter the U.S.-Israel relationship. “In the long run, a deep American alliance with the kind of garrison state Netanyahu envisions will become untenable,” Chait says.

In the long run, I suspect Chait’s right. If Israel continues down the path Netanyahu has laid out—no Palestinian state, even further alienating the already alienated Israeli Arab population—the U.S. government will no longer be able to operate under the pretense that he supports any sort of realistic peace process. As Chait writes, “the nature of Israel's diplomatic alliance with the United States will have to change — the U.S. cannot continue to extend its U.N. veto to a country whose government has formally disavowed negotiations.” Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans will pull back some of their unconditional support, and Israel will become an even more partisan issue in the U.S. The country’s main political constituency will shift from the mainstream to the Orthodox and the Christian right.

In the short term, some things probably won’t change all that dramatically. The Obama administration will spend the rest of this month trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, and the U.S. will continue to supply Israel with military aid.

But if Netanyahu wins, the administration may not try all that hard to keep other countries from unilaterally recognizing Palestine, and in the event of another bloody confrontation like the one in Gaza last summer, it may be a lot less enthusiastic about defending Israel’s actions publicly.

Of course, in two years, Obama is out, and another Democrat could enter the White House with Netanyahu still in power. Hillary Clinton was stronger in her defense of Netanyahu during the Gaza war than most Democrats. She also has argued that he’s still a viable partner for peace, telling Jeffery Goldberg last summer that during face-to-face meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, she saw the prime minister “move from being against the two-state solution to announcing his support for it … way far from what he is, and what he is comfortable with.”

Either she seriously misread him, or she’ll be able to woo him back to the negotiating table. If it’s the former, it will be very hard for Hillary, whose husband finagled that iconic handshake between Arafat and Rabin more than 20 years ago, to continue along with Netanyahu as if nothing’s changed.