If there’s anyone more sorry about Obama’s victory than Mitt Romney then it’s probably the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
After four years of an increasingly testy relationship, which has seen unusual political friction between the White House and an Israeli government, Obama is now less constrained by domestic politics if he decides to return to the stand he took in the months after he took office and press Netanyahu toward negotiating seriously with the Palestinians.
Obama sought to pressure the Israeli prime minister to halt Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, at their first meeting in the spring of 2009. Netanyahu not only resisted but humiliated the president by publicly lecturing him about Jewish history.
Since then, the Israeli leader has managed to take Palestine off the agenda by shifting the focus to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Obama has pursued a twin approach of doing more than almost any other US president to bolster Israel’s security with military assistance while attempting to stave off an Israeli attack on Iran. All the while the US administration has quietly brooded about the president’s treatment by Netanyahu.
Obama now has a freer hand to press the Palestinian issue if he chooses. He is no longer as vulnerable to the drum beat of charges from the right that by pressing Israel to end the occupation he is endangering the Jewish state and therefore America.
The president has an incentive to shift more of his attention to foreign policy because it will be hard to force any radical domestic legislation past the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Bill Clinton was in a similar position when he decided to push the Middle East peace process and came close to forging an agreement.
Obama is dealing with a more truculent Israeli leader in Netanyahu, who is now aligned with political leaders who are opposed to giving up land. But that does not mean the US president is without means, including public pressure that any Israeli leadership – sensitive to its own electorate which sees good relations with the US as crucial to the Jewish state’s security – will hesitate to resist too far.
If Obama’s strategy of sanctions and diplomacy defuses the crisis with Tehran, that will undercut Netanyahu’s tactic of using Iran to deflect attention from the occupation while Israel continues to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and tighten its grip on East Jerusalem.
The question is whether Obama has the desire to return to the fight.