Netanyahu Coalition Seen Keeping U.S.-Israel Relations Frosty

Hours after a new Israeli government was formed, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an obligatory statement saying he “looks forward to working with” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his slender coalition of conservative parties.

Few analysts think Obama is really looking forward to another Netanyahu government, and many doubt that the two will be working together much.

Ties between the U.S. and its closest Middle East ally, already strained over negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program, are likely to remain frosty as Netanyahu works with more hard-line forces such as the Jewish Home party -- a religious faction committed to expanding West Bank settlements.

“Relations are not going to improve in the short term,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. “It’s not just that the two leaders don’t like each other. Their policies are very different.”

While military cooperation between the two countries remains strong, “the political relationship has been troubled and it will remain problematic,” said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

For one thing, the new coalition probably dashes whatever hopes Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may still have had for reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Slim Majority

Netanyahu, whose Likud party won only a quarter of the 120 seats in parliament two months ago, this week barely eked out a 61-seat coalition with smaller factions. Many members of his own party oppose a Palestinian state, and the Jewish Home party that’s crucial to his majority wants Israel to annex much of the West Bank, which Palestinians want for their own state.

“Israel has just formed the most extremist government in its history,” Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow in Amman, Jordan, for the Institute for Palestine Studies, said in an e-mail. Netanyahu’s new cabinet “does not pay even lip service to the charade of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians,” he said.

“I don’t think he or Obama will take a big run at the peace process again with this set of characters,” said Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, who worked for Kerry at the State Department and in the U.S. Senate.

“I think he’s very focused on Iran, which is where he should be focused,” Goldenberg said of Kerry.

There, too, however, the American administration can expect no support from Israel -- or from its strongest supporters in Congress, Democrats or Republicans.

Iran Tensions

Tensions flared in March over the announcement of a framework for a U.S.-backed Iran deal, which would trade an easing of sanctions for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu said the deal would endanger Israel, while Obama has said it could ensure Iran won’t develop a nuclear weapon.

The longest-running difference between the U.S. and Israel is over new or expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

A day after the new coalition was announced, the activist group Peace Now said on Thursday that Israel’s Interior Ministry had approved 900 new apartments for ultra-Orthodox Jews in a part of Jerusalem that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. Additional approvals are needed.

The U.S. State Department, with diplomatic understatement, called the decision “disappointing” and damaging to hopes for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

Netanyahu now has “a highly problematic coalition, in which every member of the coalition holds its future in his/her hands,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said in an e-mailed statement.

‘Right-Wing Positions’

“The key actors have well-known right-wing positions and now have control over key portfolios that will determine such critical issues as settlements activity,” said Kurtzer, now a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “Now, it is they, far more than Netanyahu, who will set the course of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories.”

Palestinians said they see virtually no prospect of Netanyahu embracing their aspirations for statehood, greeting with scorn the news that he secured a fourth term.

“Congratulations Israel. Your new government has ensured that peace is not on their agenda,” Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an e-mailed statement. “The face of a new form of racist, discriminatory Israel has been revealed.”

U.S. Groups

Depending on its actions, the new coalition government may even widen some differences among Israeli supporters in the U.S.

While Netanyahu has garnered consistent support from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the largest pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, his re-election drew promises of stronger opposition from J Street, a pro-Israel group critical of the prime minister.

“J Street will back the U.S. administration in putting weight behind its stated opposition to settlements and in playing a constructive role in shaping a UN resolution” to establish Palestinian statehood, the group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in a letter.

Silver Lining

“The stress with Obama was bad before, and it will only get worse” if Netanyahu resists efforts to revive the peace process, said Yoram Meital, director of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

The only silver lining for Obama, several analysts said, is the prospect that the Israeli government may be so fragile that it proves unworkable, forcing Netanyahu to reach for new partners, including the more centrist Zionist Union.

“This is going to be an unmanageable coalition,” said Goldenberg, the former Kerry aide. “This government is unlikely to last very long. In the meantime, it’s just going to be dysfunctional.”

Relations between Obama and Netanyahu are unlikely to get worse than they are already, even with the new coalition in place, as the U.S. leader concentrates on securing support for a nuclear deal with Iran, said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

And if Netanyahu broadens his coalition by reaching toward the center, the U.S. could try to revive peace talks with the Palestinians at some point, he said.

“Rough times may be coming, but I don’t think anybody has any stake in making the ongoing Cold War more frigid,” Miller said.

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