The surprising victory of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the polls this week represents a remarkable personal triumph, making him one of the Jewish state’s longest-serving leaders. Now, let the fence-mending begin — as hard as that may be for both the Israeli leader and his American counterpart.
There’s no love lost between Mr. Netanyahu and President Obama. Neither is big on charm offensives. But personal political feuds have no place in this relationship, a cornerstone of foreign policy for the United States and a matter of survival for Israel.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu are experienced enough, and wise enough, to understand the mutual value of the relationship between their two countries and to realize that, ultimately, they have a duty to set aside their differences. They are statesmen as well as politicians, and statesmanship requires tact, patience and forebearance.
It also requires forward-looking diplomacy. In that realm, the way Mr. Netanyahu achieved his victory was disappointing. His last-minute vow that under his leadership Israel would never agree to a Palestinian state was a setback for the two-state solution that many Israelis, as well as most Western leaders, see as the only avenue to peace. Just two days after his victory, the prime minister walked way back from his pandering pledge. He said he still wants “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution — but for that, circumstances have to change.”
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In addition, his pre-election call for supporters to come out in force to offset the vote of Israeli Arabs is bound to cause more division and discontent in a land that has more than enough of both.
It certainly undermines whatever goodwill was generated in Europe by the terrible acts of anti-Semitism that have swept across the continent recently. The United States has consistently and dutifully fought off anti-Israeli efforts in forums like the U.N. General Assembly and the shamefully biased U.N. Human Rights Council, but it helps to have Europe’s support. Alienating European public opinion for the sake of winning a political race doesn’t help Israel.
Then there is the matter of Mr. Netanyahu ignoring precedent and custom to accept an invitation to speak before the U.S. Congress, knowing full well that the politically loaded invitation was extended as a way for Republicans to challenge President Obama and show their disdain for him. Mr. Netanyahu brushed aside the fact that he was stepping into a domestic political feud. His gamble paid off, but at the cost of turning the U.S.-Israeli relationship into a partisan issue. It’s hard to see how the nation of Israel benefits.
If there is any reason for optimism in all this, it is that Mr. Netanyahu has purged some of the more extreme rightist elements from his governing coalition in recent months, and there are fewer settlers in the incoming parliament than the last. That should give him leeway to adopt more moderate domestic positions.
As for forebearance, there must surely be a realization in the White House that it’s easier to call on Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians when there is peace in the region — always a relative term in the Middle East — than when the region is up in flames. Allowances must be made for the current increase in tensions and fears.
Most important, both sides must stand together to forge a strong anti-nuclear deal with Iran. Mr. Obama must go the extra mile so that Israel’s security is not at risk. Only the ayatollahs benefit from division between leaders in Jerusalem and Washington.