JERUSALEM – He never said so publicly, but the widely held assumption was that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported Mitt Romney on his quest for the presidency.
They are both from conservative parties, they were friends from their days at Boston Consulting Group in the late ’70s and they both shared the support of U.S. multibillionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. On top of that, Netanyahu and President Obama have had a particularly chilly relationship because the prime minister has repeatedly raised the specter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
The criticism of Netanyahu’s perceived support for Romney started shortly after Obama’s victory Tuesday night (about 6 a.m. Wednesday morning here), and has only snowballed since. Politicians and commentators pounded Bibi, as he’s known here, for wading into U.S. politics and damaging the strong relationship between the two countries by backing the wrong horse.
“So Sorry, President Obama, Please Forgive Netanyahu,” read the headline of a Haaretz column today by Yossi Sarid, a former longtime Knesset member and leader of the liberal Meretz Party.
“Bibi Gambled, We’ll Pay,” was another in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, the highest-circulated in Israel.
“In his behavior with the Americans, Netanyahu was like the well-known joke about the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazel – a schlemiel is the one who spills hot soup on the schlimazel,” wrote Sima Kadmon in the Yedioth op-ed. “But in this case, Netanyahu is both the schlemiel and the schlimazel: He spilled the hot soup on himself, and he is not the only one who got burned. We all did.”
The same newspaper reported that the prime minister’s office was “stunned” by the news of Romney’s defeat. Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev called such reporting “certainly not accurate.”
“It’s rubbish, it’s just not true,” Regev told ABC News when asked about the support for Romney.
Netanyahu was “totally neutral the whole campaign,” he said. “It’s clear there are some people who, for all sorts of reasons, are trying to develop this narrative but it’s just not true. He made every effort to stay out of the election.”
Israeli politicos from the other end of the political spectrum happily piled onto the narrative. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is mulling another run in Israel’s upcoming elections, said, “Our prime minister meddled in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire, who used the prime minister of Israel to promote his own candidate for president. This is a significant violation of the basic rules in the relations between countries, certainly when we are talking about allies such as Israel and the United States.”
The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has long been a frosty one, highlighted by Netanyahu’s public lecturing of the president in the Oval Office in 2011 and Obama’s refusal to meet with the Israeli premier on his recent to the U.S. for the United Nations General Assembly.
The Obama administration has not been as tough on Iran as Netanyahu would have liked, culminating with harsh comments in September.
“The world tells Israel, ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” Netanyahu said. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
Well before Obama had sealed his victory, some here had begun speculating what Obama’s revenge might look like in a second term. The Israel newspaper Ma’ariv reported Thursday that the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, had fretted months ago in private conversations that Obama would want to settle scores. And with Israeli elections slated for Jan. 22, the day after Obama’s inauguration, many are wondering aloud whether the president might try to in run interfere in an election Netanyahu’s party is poised to win.
Three hours after ABC News called the election for Obama, Netanyahu’s office put out a short statement, saying, “The strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S. is stronger than ever. I will continue to work with President Obama in order to assure the interests that are vital to the security of the citizens of Israel.”
Netanyahu appeared eager to start repairing the damage, meeting with the U.S. ambassador here, Dan Shapiro, even having his personal congratulations filmed. He ordered fellow members of his Likud Party to stop expressing their disappointment over Obama’s victory, and to run their statements by his office.
But Netanyahu is far from the only Israeli who supported Romney in Israel. In global polls, Israel is the only country in the world that would have elected Romney over Obama.
A recent Tel Aviv University poll put Romney’s support among Israeli Jews at 57.2 percent, compared with Obama’s 21.5 percent. Romney’s support among Israeli-American voters is believed to be even higher.
So, now, with Obama’s kicking off his second term, big questions loom over the U.S.-Israel relationship and how it will deal with the two biggest issues they grapple with together: Iran’s growing nuclear program and the Israel-Palestinian peace process that hasn’t budged in more than two years.
“If he takes revenge on Bibi or even just conducts himself with chilly cerebral rationalism,” an official described as a member of Netanyahu’s inner circle told Maariv newspaper, “we’re going to be in a difficult position.”