* Israelis ask whether U.S. seeks to sway Jan. 22 ballot
* Jibes on foreign policy unlikely to sap Netanyahu base
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Jan 16 Long-strained ties between
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu sprang to the fore of
Israel's election campaign on Wednesday after the U.S. president
was quoted as criticising the prime minister's character.
Less than a week before a Jan. 22 ballot that opinion polls
predict the right-wing Netanyahu will win easily, Israeli media
highlighted a U.S. commentator's column on Obama and asked
whether the Democratic president was trying to sway the vote.
"Obama said privately and repeatedly, 'Israel doesn't know
what its own best interests are'," wrote Bloomberg columnist
The U.S. president "seems to view the prime minister as a
political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who
nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to
advance the cause of compromise", Goldberg said.
The White House has not commented on the column's content.
Netanyahu appeared to chide Obama, without mentioning the
president or his reported remarks, during a visit on Wednesday
to an army base near Gaza.
"I think everyone understands that only Israeli citizens
will be the ones who determine who faithfully represents
Israel's vital interests," Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks.
Obama and Netanyahu have been at odds over Israel's
settlement building in the occupied West Bank and heavy Israeli
hints of possible military action against Iran's nuclear
Some Israeli commentators saw the column as payback for
Netanyahu's perceived back-room lobbying on behalf of Republican
Mitt Romney in his failed run against Obama in November's U.S.
election. Netanyahu has denied any such meddling.
Though it was front-page news in Israel, Goldberg's column
looks unlikely to dent Netanyahu's electoral lead, with his
Likud-Beiteinu list expected to take around 34 of parliament's
120 seats and form the next coalition government.
A centrist challenger, former Foreign Minister and peace
negotiator Tzipi Livni, has made Israel's international
isolation under Netanyahu the focus of her campaign. Her party
has lagged in polls with a projected 6 to 8 parliamentary seats.
"Attempts to speak to the Israeli voter through the American
press are total non-starters," said Amotz Asa-El, a fellow with
the Hartman Institute, a liberal think-tank in Jerusalem.
Most Israelis, Asa-El argued, were disenchanted by frozen
peace efforts, worried by regional upheaval and preoccupied with
domestic affairs. Foreign criticism of Netanyahu, he said, could
shore him up against rivals further to the right.
"These (far-rightists) have never heard of Bloomberg, let
alone of Jeffrey Goldberg. If anything, this (criticism) is
likely to make them vote for Netanyahu," Asa-El said. "There is
no traffic of undecided voters between the rightist bloc and the
centre-left bloc, only within the blocs."
Several Israeli officials questioned whether the quotes
attributed to Obama reflected the view of his administration,
which, like the Netanyahu government, has played up the strength
of bilateral ties on issues ranging from the Palestinians to the
Syrian insurgency and Iran's disputed nuclear programme.
Vice premier Silvan Shalom, of the Likud party, told
Israel's Army Radio: "I don't know if these things were said
because he (Obama) did not say them in his own voice."
Shalom appeared to acknowledge tensions between Netanyahu
and Obama. But he praised the U.S. president's tack on Iran -
Israel's main regional worry - and said bilateral ties trumped
"I have seen many countries where the relationship between
the leaders was good but there were no common interests and thus
no cooperation. By contrast, in other places where there were
interests but, perhaps, the relationships were less good, the
interests were ultimately what took precedent," Shalom said.