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Netanyahu’s Decisive Win Draws Partisan US Response

  • VOA News

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, waves to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, waves to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu savors his party’s decisive victory in parliamentary elections, U.S. lawmakers are reacting along party lines while analysts are more circumspect.

It was unclear Wednesday how the win will affect U.S. relations with Israel. Tensions had mounted over the long-stalled Middle East peace process and the prime minister’s recent, impassioned speech before the U.S. Congress, during which he warned against an Iran nuclear deal. The move was criticized as undermining the Obama administration and its international partners.

House Speaker John Boehner, who invited Netanyahu to speak, tweeted "heartfelt congratulations" to the prime minister: "Looking forward to continuing the strong bond between #Israel & America."

"The people of Israel have spoken," U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House’s leading Democrat, said at a news conference Wednesday, Reuters reported. "I respect the results that they have produced. I think that what they have produced will be a continued lively discussion about the peace process."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Netanyahu to extend congratulations, the White House said, noting that President Barack Obama would do so "in the coming days."

Administration spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that the president was committed to continuing unprescedented security cooperation between the United States and Israel.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu infuriated the White House and some of Israel's other Western allies by declaring he would not support a two-state solution to ease tensions with Palestinians. "I think that whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel," the prime minister said.

Earnest on Wednesday reiterated the administration's support for a democratic and Jewish state of Israel living side by side with an independent Palestinian state, a U.S. policy goal for 20 years.

He also said the U.S. was deeply concerned about "divisive" Likud Party messages that said an overwhelming Arab-Israeli turnout would tip the vote toward Netanyahu's rival.

"The United States and this administration [are] deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens," Earnest said.

Security tops economic concerns?

Netanyahu’s win means "security trumped domestic issues," said U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, referencing some Israelis' concerns about pocketbook issues. But the South Carolina Republican, a vocal critic of President Barack Obama, said the vote contained a message for the American leader.

"Embrace the reality that Iran is toppling one neighbor after the other, and that you [Obama] are negotiating regarding their nuclear ambition and they are not paying any price for destabilizing the region," Graham told VOA. The administration has "an obsession with a nuclear deal with Iran that is disturbing everybody in the region."

Watch related video by VOA's Pamela Dockins.

The head of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, offered his congratulations in a statement that was more moderate in tone. It celebrated "the oldest and most stable democracy in the Middle East" and congratulated both Netanyahu and his chief rival, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, for a competitive bid.

"We look forward to continuing to build on our mutual interests," Corker said.

While clearly pleased with the election outcome and sharply critical of negotiations with Iran, Senator Orrin Hatch would not go so far as to suggest Israeli voters gave a de facto rebuke of the nuclear talks.

The Utah Republican told VOA he considered "Bibi" his friend and "one of the strongest people in the world. You have to give him a lot of credit for winning that election and, personally, I think that [outcome] is in the best interests of Israel and I am glad they made that choice."

Democratic Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota was unabashedly critical of election results.

He told VOA he was disappointed by what he perceived as fear-mongering to "gin up right-wing support" and by Netanyahu’s backing away from a two-state solution. "And that comes after he embarrassed our president in this chamber," Ellison said. "… I don’t think this is a good day for Israel, I don’t think this is a good day for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and I don’t think it is a good day for Palestinians."

Two Democratic senators offered more temperate responses.

"I am looking forward to continuing to work with" Netanyahu "and seeking peace in the Middle East," Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told VOA. "All of us are simply looking forward to trying to stop a nuclear-armed Iran and make sure we pursue common goals of peace and civility in the Middle East."

Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said he sees "an unbreakable bond" between the U.S. and Israel, "and we are going to be supportive not only of Israel's security, but also reaffirming values that bring us together. That's the case no matter what happens in any election."

Tougher campaign stance

Especially in the last few days of the campaign – when Israeli opinion polls were suggesting Netanyahu would not win a fourth term – the prime minister portrayed himself both as a strongman bent on protecting Israeli security and a victim of opposition news media and some foreign leaders, including Obama, observers said.

"I actually think the Obama administration helped contribute to his victory because of the way they treated him," Republican Representative Paul Ryan said Wednesday on the FOX News program "Fox & Friends."

"It helped [Netanyahu] consolidate his coalition so that he could have this landslide victory, and I'm pleased to see it happen," Ryan added.

FILE - A laborer stands at apartment building construction site in Jewish settlement known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim, West Bank, Oct. 28, 2014.

FILE - A laborer stands at apartment building construction site in Jewish settlement known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Ghneim, West Bank, Oct. 28, 2014.

Elliott Abrams, a Middle East analyst with the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, characterized Netanyahu’s late campaign maneuvers as "scare tactics" but said they don’t indicate how the prime minister will govern in this next term.

Abrams, a panelist for the council’s election postmortem on Wednesday, said, "Data shows Netanyahu has slowed down settlement construction" in the West Bank, though the prime minister "doesn’t talk about it."

Going forward, Abrams wondered, will Israeli settlers have more clout?

"If his new coalition relies in part … on the ultraorthodox religious parties, what will there demands be?" he asked rhetorically.

What's next for U.S.-Israeli relations?

Another panelist suggested Israeli and U.S. leaders would try to modulate their disagreements.

"Both sides now are going to want to tone down the rhetoric," said Robert Danin, another Middle East expert with the council, joining the teleconference from Tel Aviv. But, he added, the enmity between Netanyahu and Obama would impose “limits on how far they can go together.”

At a separate event, the head of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, suggested Netanyahu’s campaign strategy may negatively influence U.S. electoral politics.

"One of the things we should learn from this is that playing the fear card works," Jane Harmon said at a Wilson Center gathering to analyze election results. "… Is this going to become a high art form, to our detriment?"

Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama likely will continue to be problematic, some analysts said.

Natan Sachs, a fellow with the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, predicted the prime minister's "foreign policy with the United States is going to be very difficult."

Speaking in a Wednesday teleconference, Sachs said Netanyahu has "broken with the administration." He also predicted that what the prime minister "said on the Palestinian issue will reverberate in Europe as well."

Neri Zilber, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, cited Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, saying Netanyahu "does not quite cultivate those professional and close relationships that are oftentimes needed to develop trust."

Despite differences, Zilber said he expects the U.S. administration to continue pushing for its priorities in Israel, including the Palestinian peace process.

"Especially given Netanyahu’s recent remarks, the U.S. will likely put forward its own idea with respect to what a negotiated final status agreement looks like – whether Netanyahu and the Israeli government like it or not."

Michael Bowman and Cindy Saine contributed to this report from Capitol Hill, with contributions from Pamela Dockin at the State Department and Aru Pande at the White House. Carol Guensburg also contributed, and some additional information was provided by Reuters..

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