Israelis back Mitt Romney in upcoming presidential election but Palestinians are indifferent
Israel may be openly hoping that Republican challenger Mitt Romney will end up stealing the presidency from Barack Obama, but for the Palestinians it makes little difference who takes over the White House.
With the US presidential race drawing to a close, Israelis have come out strongly in favour of the Republican nominee who they believe is likely to be a better friend to the Jewish state than President Obama.
Figures published in a Peace Index poll showed a clear majority of Jewish Israelis — 57 percent — believe that when it comes to Israel’s interests, Romney would be the best president, compared with 22 percent for Obama.
“Israelis are a bit suspicious of Obama and prefer Romney,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Bar Ilan University.
“This is because of Obama’s tough attitude — personally to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also on the diplomatic level towards Israel,” he said.
Netanyahu himself “would prefer Romney, because he feels that relations with Obama were tense, that there was not enough cooperation — neither personally nor nationally,” Gilboa explained.
Ties have never been easy between Netanyahu and Obama — their public meetings have often been visibly tense, marked by awkward body language, and the two have differed over key issues, most recently over how to handle the Iran nuclear file.
While both Obama and Romney were on the same page in their attitude towards Israel’s security needs, there was a significant difference between the two on the key issue of a nuclear Iran, Gilboa said.
Netanyahu has pushed for a much more hardline approach that could include pre-emptive military action, while Obama has preferred to allow diplomacy and sanctions dissuade Iran from building the bomb.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, “Obama is against any Israeli use of force, and won’t use force himself” against Iran, he said.
“Romney won’t use force himself, but would let Netanyahu carry out a military action if he chose to do so.”
Despite some Israeli media and conservative US Jews portraying Obama as giving Israel the cold shoulder, his administration has done a lot for Israel’s security over the past four years, said Peter Medding, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The issue really for Israel is, irrespective of who you want, security or defence,” he told AFP, adding there was “plenty of evidence” to show the Obama administration had done a great deal to bolster Israel’s security.
Although it was no secret that Netanyahu would prefer Romney to be elected, the main issue was a president who would watch out for Israel’s back, he said.
“The consensus is that the personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is not good, but having said that, you then look at the record of what Obama and his administration have done,” he said.
“If you’re engaged in politics and statesmanship at that level, you have to relate to the issues as they are and not to the persons who are representing them.”
On the Palestinian side, there is little enthusiasm about the election.
With peace negotiations on hold for more than two years, Obama no longer inspires the enthusiasm he once did among Palestinians who say the identity of the next US president will not change anything.
“The situation in the United States is known — they will support Israel whoever the next American president is,” said Muhanned Abdelhamid, a political analyst from the West Bank town of Ramallah.
“The United States adapts itself to the Israeli reality and the nature of the government in Israel and not the other way around, which means US positions towards Israel are the same whether it is Netanyahu’s Israel or (Avigdor) Lieberman’s,” he said referring to Israel’s ultranationalist foreign minister.
Any optimism sparked by Obama’s election four years ago has long since dissipated in the cold light of weakening US stands on issues like Israeli settlement building, said Abdel Majid Sweilem, a political scientist from Al-Quds University.
“I don’t think there is any possibility that the United States will drastically change its policy in the Middle East from what we are used to, whoever is the next US president,” he said.
Earlier this year, Romney came under fire for saying the Palestinians had “no interest whatsoever” in peace and indicating he would not make any serious bid as president to solve the Middle East conflict.
But Gilboa suggested that a victory by Romney, who was unlikely to exert much pressure on Israel over negotiations or its settlement building policy, could actually help rekindle the stagnant peace process.
“The Palestinians thought that Obama would do the work for them — that they’d get a deal in which Israel would make concessions, but they would not have to,” he said.
“That’s why they were so insistent all the time.”
But if they see Romney elected president, it could have the opposite effect. “They could say: ‘We should enter negotiations after all’,” he said.