President Obama wasn’t reelected because of his serviceable but lackluster foreign policy. We know from polls that voters weren’t thinking too much about issues beyond America’s borders. Even the big ticket questions that Mitt Romney tried to inject into the debate—Iran’s nukes, Israel’s security, the Arab uprisings—failed to sway the public. Obama still won 69 percent of the Jewish vote (down from 78 percent in 2008), according to exit polls, despite a sustained campaign to portray him as a villain on Israel.
Yet Obama’s return to the White House for a second term raises the question of whether America will now realign its policy toward Israel and its Arab neighbors. America’s closest ally in the region has been Israel, far and away a tighter partnership than any of the American connections in the Middle East. But the relationship has been fraught and out of balance. Under Obama’s leadership, the U.S. government has considerably increased America’s already unequaled commitment to Israel: in security cooperation, in funding, in military aid. And yet, this administration has been reviled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a nightmare for Israel, largely because it won’t green-light a strike on Iran. Meanwhile, on settlements and talks with Palestinians, Obama’s minimal requests were rebuffed in the most extreme of manners; Netanyahu went out of his way to embarrass the White House when the U.S. asked for a settlement freeze that was actually an Israeli obligation under the Road Map it had agreed to under George W. Bush. No ally has been as brittle with the U.S.
Now, however, with Obama’s reelection and a growing chorus of criticism from within the Israeli establishment, which prizes its enduring relationship with the United States, a corrective realignment becomes a distinct possibility. Obama has practically and rhetorically increased an ironclad commitment to Israeli security (some would say even to the detriment of America’s room for maneuver in the Arab world). He has proven an unshakeable steward of Israel’s top priorities. It’s likely that the Israeli government will feel obliged to resume reciprocating, in keeping with most of its leaders in history, who have tended to cherish the good graces of U.S. presidents rather than scorning them as obstacles.
The U.S. remains doctrinally committed to its alliance with Israel, but the tone of Obama’s support was markedly less hot, and more attuned to U.S. interests, than was Mitt Romney’s pledge to significantly tilt U.S. policy toward Jerusalem. Obama has refused to yield to the bald political pressure created when Netanyahu, the sitting prime minister of a major ally, campaigned on U.S. soil for Romney. But he also refused to react to the insult by interfering with America’s intimate alliance with Israel. This record is proof enough of Obama’s commitment. Now, he is in a position to use this accrued political capital to push Israel to negotiate with Palestinians.
Even if Obama pressures for a peace process, there’s no guarantee it will work. Interests and power might have diverged so much as to preclude an agreement. But Obama’s sustained friendship to Israel, with none of the rhetorical excess desired by certain quarters on the right in the U.S. and Israel, has established him as a reliable ally for Israel but also, perhaps for the first time since the presidency of George H. W. Bush, as an American leader who really can serve as an honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The question is, will he try to use it?