All John Kerry Wants for Christmas Is an Israel Without Bibi

But if the United States plays politics in Israel’s spring election, it’s possible no one will get what they want next year.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

So what does U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry really want for Christmas? A U.S.-Iran nuclear deal? How about an end to the Assad regime? Or maybe he’d like some comeuppance for Vladimir Putin under his tree?

Well, sure. Those sound like nice enough gifts, but I’m betting that in addition to day dreaming of dancing sugar plums, the secretary of state is hoping for a new Israeli government come March 2015 — one that’s more suitable to his own peacemaking efforts.

Indeed, given how much Kerry cares about and wants to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough (possibly more than anything else on the U.S. diplomatic front), what Kerry really wants for Christmas is Bibi gone and Tzipi Livni — his real peace partner — back on top if not as prime minister then as key negotiator.

Such a Christmas wish isn’t out of the question. Recent polls suggest that a Labor-Livni list would out poll Likud. And while nobody would want to bet their mortgage on that outcome now, it’s a reasonable proposition to conclude that Israelis are seriously prepared for a change.

Still, in Israeli political time, it’s an eternity until March 2015. And much can happen. If elections in Israel were all about who was naughty and who was nice this year, Bibi might truly be out. But elections turn not just on popularity but on who has the best chance of putting together a government coalition. And at the moment that would seem to favor Likud, with some combination of the religious parties plus another conservative party or two.

Though many uncertainties about what might happen in March still abound; and one of the most intriguing is whether U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary Kerry are prepared to help shape the outcome they want by toughening their rhetoric and action against this current Prime Minister

Now I know that the United States position is that it won’t intervene in Israeli politics. In fact, Kerry said flat out a week ago that the United States would not intervene “in any way” in the choices of the Israeli people.

But just because the United States isn’t going to publicly weigh in doesn’t mean the Obama administration doesn’t have preferences and a stake in the political direction Israel takes. And over the years, we have indeed played favorites, on one occasion even intervening and making our case in the middle of an actual campaign.

In 1996, then-president Bill Clinton all but mustered a “Get Out the Vote” campaign for Shimon Peres against … that’s right, Benjamin Netanyahu. Clinton was again ready in December 2000 to travel to Israel to broker an agreement between then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat with the hope that it would help Barak beat Ariel Sharon in the upcoming elections. Both Clinton efforts failed. Bibi and Sharon won.

So should Obama and Kerry try to shape the March 2015 outcome? And would it work? The answers are no and no. And here’s why.

We’re Pretty Incompetent

Was there ever an administration that has been more flatfooted in handling the U.S.-Israeli relationship than this one? Sure, Netanyahu is a tough partner. But there’s ample precedent for U.S. presidents dealing with Israeli prime ministers more effectively. Carter, Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43 dealt with Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu, and Sharon in much better fashion, actually achieving some things like an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; a Madrid peace conference; and a couple of interim agreements with the Palestinians.

This administration can’t decide whether to use honey, vinegar, or a combination of both, with the Israelis. And entering the seventh year of the Obama presidency, we have the most dysfunctional personal relationship between a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister in the history of the U.S.-Israeli story. There’s no settlements freeze; no peace process; no consensus on how to deal with Iran; and a legacy of suspicion and mistrust to boot. I know dealing with Netanyahu is hard. But we’ve made matters worse. I can only imagine the character of our intervention if after all this we tried to play Israeli politics through a series of too-clever-by-half tactics that made it clear who or what we wanted to see emerge in March elections.

It’s Likely to Backfire

If we had a president Israelis really trusted, a strong Arab partner they admired, and a clear alternative to Netanyahu that was something of a frontrunner, you might be able to convincingly make the case that Washington is in a position to help affect the outcome it desired. But then again, under those circumstances and with those clear choices, the Israeli public wouldn’t need much help in picking an alternative that might make Washington happier and produce an Israeli government that could actually make decisions.

But this isn’t the reality of today’s situation. And that makes any effort to meddle so perfidiously transparent and strategy-less as to almost guarantee failure. The one time the United States did intercede successfully was back in 1991 and 1992 when then president Bush 41 and then Secretary of State James Baker denied Shamir housing loan guarantees because of his settlements policy. That worked partly because the intervention occurred not in the middle of a campaign, but against the backdrop of a successful peace conference in Madrid, and by mid-1992, with Rabin having emerged as a credible alternative to Shamir. Indeed, it was a close election and Rabin won partly because Shamir was perceived to have mismanaged the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Today, Netanyahu is also perceived to have mishandled Washington. But with the region so threatening and Obama, despite his disaffection for Bibi, perceived as weak and largely unwilling or unable to affect Netanyahu’s policies the situation is far murkier. To intervene at this late stage by blasting Netanyahu, sanctioning Israel on settlements, or supporting pro-Palestinian U.N. resolutions when Obama could have done these things earlier in his term will be seen and resented for what it is — external pressure and direct intervention in Israeli elections by an incompetent administration. News flash for the White House: Want to ensure you get the candidate you don’t want elected? Start intervening now. Indeed one Israeli commentator argues that Bibi wants the United States to try to intervene on the assumption it would help shore up his support on the right.

Are the Arabs and Euros shilling for Washington?

Nobody is saying that they are. But right now you have great deal of pressure building in Europe against Netanyahu, e.g. pressing Israel to stop settlement activity, parliamentary recognition of Palestinian statehood, and pushing for peace process resolutions at the U.N. Foreign Policy author Matthew Duss even wonders whether that kind of pressure could help topple Netanyahu.

But here’s another question worth asking: Is the United States using this pressure coming out of Europe as a kind of deniable proxy to demonstrate that Israel is becoming isolated because of Netanyahu’s policies and as a not so subtle reminder that he’s got to go? I think there are doubtless folks at the State Department and in the White House inside who’d like to do just that.

But I think on balance the United States is really stuck on this one and is in a no-win situation. Most worrisome are a couple draft UNSC resolutions that the Arabs and the French are pushing on the peace process. Indeed, the Palestinian resolution could move forward this week. Both purport to inject two year deadlines to end the Israeli occupation or alternatively to reach an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to do so.

Clearly the United States wants avoid a veto that would anger the Arabs and perhaps buck up Netanyahu in the election campaign. But should the U.S. vote for or to abstain on a resolution it will be perceived as trying to weaken Netanyahu and boost him in the eyes of the right. Given the fact that there are no negotiations right now or unlikely to be any of consequence during the election campaign, the best outcome would be to defer them until after March 2015. Indeed, given the longstanding U.S. commitment to direct talks, clearly Kerry would prefer kicking this U.N. can down the road.

So what should Obama and Kerry do when it comes to Israel’s elections? The Israeli prime minister clearly favored Romney and was apparently stunned by his loss. The two had developed a warm friendship over time. Why shouldn’t Obama pay him back by meddling in his election?

Why not, indeed. Because the administration’s handling of the U.S.-Israeli relationship looks like the cross between a Marx Brothers movie and the Keystone Cops. And because at day’s end, Washington is likely to produce the very outcome it wants to avoid in spades: an aggrieved Bibi Netanyahu for another four years. Let the Israeli public decide this one by itself. If Obama and Kerry meddle they may well end up being the grinches that ruin their own Christmas.

Gali Tibbon-Pool/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2