Congressional Republicans, With Much at Stake, Await a Clear Outcome in Israel's Elections

The GOP could lose a key ally against President Obama if Benjamin Netanyahu comes out of the election weakened.

Israeli citizens are not the only ones anxiously awaiting the results of their Tuesday election. Senate members also are watching closely, and wondering whether their country's fragile relationship with Israel could shift in upcoming weeks.

The New York Times reported Tuesday night that the election was still "too close to call." As of press time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was claiming victory on social media, but the principal opposition party, the Zionist Union, had earned about the same amount of seats in parliament, according to exit polls. That points to an advantage for Netanyahu's Likud party, according to Israeli political analysts, but it could take awhile to hash out a governing coalition. Jockeying to gain more support to tip the scales in either party's direction is underway.

Most Senate Republicans and Democrats have been careful to pick a favorite in the race.

"It's up to the Israeli people," said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who is a potential 2016 contender, as the votes were counted.

GOP Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told reporters he had a "preference that would remain unnamed" because of his strategic position as the chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

"I'm gonna wait and see what happens," Corker said. "Our relationship is not with a person, it is with a country."

Even Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who has been an outspoken advocate for Netanyahu on Capitol Hill and played a key role in guiding the prime minister throughout his visit to Washington this month, said that he was going to "let the Israeli people decide" and "work with whoever gets elected."

There is no denying that the outcome of the Israeli election could have a major impact on U.S. foreign policy. Netanyahu has remained a key obstacle for the Obama administration as it has attempted to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. The Israeli prime minister has worked alongside the president's political foes—Republicans—on Capitol Hill rather than working with Obama himself behind closed doors. If Netanyahu loses, Republicans could lose a key ally and voice against the president's strategy. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's competition, Issac Herzog, has been much more careful about criticizing the U.S., which he maintains is too valuable an ally to alienate. And, on the issue of an Iran nuclear deal, Herzog told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in December that "I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal."

GOP Sen. Ted Cruz has accused the Obama administration of meddling in the election in an effort to remove a barrier to its nuclear deal with Iran. The Obama administration has said repeatedly it is doing no such thing.

"It is not the act of a friend for the Obama political machine to be aggressively and actively trying to undermine and defeat the democratically elected leader of one of our closest allies," Cruz said Tuesday. "I have no doubt that the Obama White House would celebrate Netanyahu losing at the polls and would use it as yet another excuse to try and push forward this very, very bad deal with Iran that if consummated would only accelerate Iran's acquiring of nuclear weapons."

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also said that it would be a major loss if Netanyahu lost his re-election bid.

"He is the Winston Churchill of his time," Kirk said.

Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that no matter who wins, the Obama administration is going to have to work to rebuild its relationship with Israel after the last few turbulent years.

"I hope any outcome will improve it," McCain said. "It couldn't be worse, and that is the fault of the president of the United States. So you will have to ask the president what he is going to do because he is the one who has poisoned relations."

In the meantime, however, it could take weeks before a new governing coalition is decided. That means that March 24 deadline for an Iran deal could already have come and gone by the time some senators on Capitol Hill know if Netanyahu is still leading the charge like he is now, ready to rail against it on their side.