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Payback time? Israelis wonder what Obama victory will mean for Netanyahu

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak during meetings at the White House in Washington, D.C. on March 5, 2012.

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TEL AVIV, Israel -- Payback time. That is what many Israeli leaders are worrying about on Wednesday, concerned that their prime minister backed the wrong horse in the U.S. election.

Instead of staying out of American domestic affairs during the U.S. race, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be un-subtly backing Mitt Romney.  

On Wednesday, Yair Lapid, a young Israeli politician, spoke for many:

“During the election campaign in the U.S., the prime minister acted and spoke in a manner that was interpreted as blatant intervention on behalf of the Republican candidate, contrary to the customary relations between states. We call upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to take immediate steps to mend the shaky relationship between him and the administration in Washington.”

However, analysts here point out it takes two to fight.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Campaigning with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, voting and election results.

Barack Obama never visited Israel as president, he was cool toward Netanyahu in Washington, and he famously had himself photographed with his shoes on his desk while talking on the phone to the Israeli leader, a gesture understood by Israelis as a slap in the face. Showing the soles of your feet to someone is considered in the Arab world to be a mortal insult, hence the satisfaction among Arabs when an Iraqi journalist took off his shoes and threw them at President George W. Bush during a press conference in Baghdad in December 2008.

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But the analysts -- perhaps expressing wishful thinking -- insist that the poor relations between Netanyahu and Obama do not translate into American policy: America, they say, will remain true to the principles that have guided it in the Mideast for decades, in particular support for a two-state solution.

And personal relations aside, real issues remain unsettled, the most urgent being Iran. Many here believe that Obama in his second term will quickly move to repair relations with Iran by beginning direct negotiations over bilateral issues, as well as over Iran’s nuclear program.

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Israel’s fear is that the United States will reach a compromise with Iran that Israel cannot live with.

In an attempt to convey what he sees as a threat to Israel's existence, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a cartoon to illustrate how close he says Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon. In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly he asked the world to help stop them. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

However, if America commits to some kind of agreement with Iran, it would tie Israel’s hands: Israel cannot act against the open wishes of its major supporter.

On the other hand, if Iran again rejects Obama’s overtures, that may pave the way for the “all options are on the table” option -- in other words, a military strike that Netanyahu appears to believe is inevitable.

Under Obama, Israel also expects more pressure to resume talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, many Israelis and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, as well as many other Palestinians believe that is pointless.

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The danger is that yet again Israelis and Palestinians will vie to appear most cooperative with Washington, while blaming each other for the ensuing stalemate.

In the spirit of diplomacy, Netanyahu quickly released a statement congratulating Obama on his victory and was reported to be trying to organize a congratulatory phone call.

"The strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S. is stronger than ever,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I will continue to work with President Obama to protect the security interests of Israeli citizens."

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For how long, though? Within half a day of President Obama’s inauguration on January 21, Israel will vote in its own elections.

Will Netanyahu get re-elected? And if so, will Obama pay Netanyahu back by sending not-so-subtle messages in support of Netanyahu's adversaries? 

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List", "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel".

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