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US-Israel: Obama's Victory Puts Heat On Chilly Relationship With Netanyahu

Article illustrative image Partner logo An uneasy alliance

TEL AVIV - Following the example of President Shimon Peres, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak did not bide their time in congratulating Barack Obama on his electoral victory November 6. They declared that the two countries "will continue to work together" and that their strategic alliance is "stronger than ever."

These greetings, however, say a lot more about the worries of the Israeli government, especially as Netanyahu was betting on Mitt Romney to win the election. He had enthusiastically welcomed the Republican candidate when he visited Jerusalem earlier this year. Some members of Netanyahu's Likud Party even helped campaign for Romney.

Maybe that was an error that has to be quickly patched up, given the circumstances: "No, Benjamin Netanyahu did not intervene in the American electoral process. He merely showed a more active interest in it than others," said the Transport Minister Israel Katz.

However, the Prime Minister has gone out of his way to embarrass the White House, notably by declaring that he was drawing a "red line" to halt Iran's capability to develop its nuclear projects. And while Obama has refused to be drawn into such games, their differences have become so obvious over the past few months that the pair's respective entourages felt the need to publicize "a friendly phone conversation" just to show the world that they were still in fact speaking to each other.

Israel's government expects the Obama administration to settle the score before the upcoming Israeli elections on January 22. But how? Through a revival of peace agreements with the Palestinians?

In Ramallah, in the West Bank, nobody believes this hypothesis, as the United States has other pressing matters in the region and its own problems at home. Saeb Erakat, the chief advisor to Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, thinks that Washington will soon decide whether or not it will support Palestine obtaining observer status in the UN. This is a step that Israel has promised to counter. Washington would likely curb these acts, however, if it decided to take a greater role in the Middle East.

Differing opinions on Iran

But In Jerusalem, political commentators think that the issue of Iran will actually help ease the strained tensions between Israel and the U.S. "The collaboration between the two countries is the best it's been since Obama entered the White House; they both agree that Tehran must not obtain nuclear arms," explains one political columnist Amit Segal. "However, their evaluations differ on the extent of Iran's nuclear development and on the manner in which they should clip its wings. This is the cause of tension, and it is likely to continue over the next few months."

Israel is not hiding its intentions to act alone against Iran, if it sees fit. On the eve of election day, Israeli TV's main investigative program, Uvda ("Fact"), revealed that at the beginning of 2010, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak gave the order to the Chief of Israel Defense Forces Gabi Ashkenazi to put the army on "P-Plus" alert -- used only before the start of war. With support from Meir Dagan, then director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, the General refused to execute this order, judging it a suicide mission. This ultimately cost him his job.

Interviewed by the program's directors, Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that his opinion in regards to Iran has not changed despite American opposition: "I hope that I never have to do it, but if there is no other option, I will press the button."

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