Obama, Netanyahu Can't Afford Fight

Mar 05, 2012

Those who are expecting Round 9 in the Barack Obama-Benjamin Netanyahu slugfest when the president and the Israeli prime minister sit down Monday will likely be disappointed.

Politics and policy have aligned to produce an Israeli-U.S. mind meld. Whatever differences exist between the yes-we-can president and the no-you-won’t prime minister — and there are plenty — the public and private tone will be far more about hugs, not slugs.

Yet the meeting is unlikely to produce a solid consensus on the one potentially disruptive issue between the United States and Israel — military action against Iran. In large part because Netanyahu isn’t prepared to guarantee the president he won’t strike and Obama isn’t prepared to give the prime minister a guarantee that the United States will.

Enough of a consensus will likely emerge, however, to create a unified front that can signal to Tehran — as well as the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese — that the United States and Israel are on the same page when it comes to standing up to Iran about halting its nuclear program. They are in agreement about the need to ratchet up the nonmilitary pressure and, while they may differ on timing, the Iranians should understand that military action will be taken should Tehran persist in its nuclear weapons ambitions.

In comparison to the president and the prime minister’s previous tension-filled meetings, this one is expected to go smoothly. Neither is looking for a fight — and neither can afford one right now.

Granted, there are real differences over Iran — whether or when military action needs to be taken. But the last thing either Obama or Netanyahu needs now is to highlight disagreements for the world to see, the Iranians to exploit and the Republicans to capitalize on.

Obama’s goal is to counsel patience inside the room and emphasize a unified front outside. His best chance of pre-empting Israeli military action is to raise the pressure on Tehran, keep Iran guessing about a military strike and keep Netanyahu close. That might mean making clear to the Israelis at some point that Washington won’t allow the mullah-ocracy to get nukes and, if necessary, will indeed take military action.

As for Netanyahu, he clearly wants to demonstrate solidarity with Washington and alert the president to Israel’s predicament. But he wants to preserve his independence of action should he decide that Israel needs to go it alone against Iran. Both goals are served by making peace with the president.

And the politics and policy on both sides further this. First, the politics. Smart U.S. presidents fight with Israeli prime ministers only when there’s a reason to — and certainly not in an election year if they can help it. Netanyahu is also an expert at reading the U.S. political map. Odds right now favor Obama’s reelection, not a Mitt Romney win. So why make trouble for a guy you may be dealing with for another four years when you don’t have to?

Second, on the one issue that has caused the most tension — the peace process — there’s nothing worth fighting over now. Out of frustration and election politics, Obama has parked the issue and won’t risk anything this year. The Palestinians are still playing games with their United Nations. statehood initiative and are reconciling with Hamas — none of which has strengthened the president’s hand. And Netanyahu certainly doesn’t want to move forward in a bold way.

There are also few differences between the two about the Arab Spring — which in places like Syria, Libya and even Egypt is looking more like an Arab winter these days. Obama’s own optimism has been dulled by the cruel realities and complexities of the transition from authoritarian regimes to more open societies. Like the Israelis, the president knows these will be long movies that may not have happy endings.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. The relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been as rocky as any in the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship — because of their contrasting personalities as well as their policy differences.

Netanyahu is brash and overly confident, though that bravado masks an insecure and suspicious interior that seems always unsettled.

Obama, on the other hand, is more serene, rarely aggressive and emotive in public. But he is far more confident and secure.

The president doesn’t trust the prime minister and sees him as an insincere con man. This perception has been fed by others who have dealt with Netanyahu in the past — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. The prime minister, in turn, views the president as bloodless and too emotionally disconnected. He doesn’t understand where the sphinx-like Obama really stands on Israel — and he’s not alone in that.

Their relationship has none of the emotional sensibilities of President Bill Clinton’s affection for Yitzhak Rabin, or President George W. Bush’s admiration and respect for Ariel Sharon.

This personality issue is compounded by the policy differences. To a degree, tensions over issues like Iran and the Arab Spring are unavoidable. Where you stand on these matters is often driven by where you sit. A U.S. president, presiding over the foreign policy of a global superpower with many different interests and responsibilities, has one view of the world, while an Israeli prime minister, governing a tiny country (regional power though it is) with a very dark history that also perceives itself living on the knife’s edge, has another.

On the Arab-Israeli peace process, there’s a vast gap between the two. Obama surely believes that if Israel would only be more forthcoming and serious about the big issues — including borders and Jerusalem — the Palestinians might come around. But Netanyahu can’t afford a serious negotiation. It would conflict with his ideology, break his coalition and jeopardize his view of Israel’s security needs.

The two clash on the Arab Spring as well. Obama sees opportunities in greater democratization. Netanyahu sees rising Islamism and more hostility toward Israel.

There are also significant divisions on Iran. For Obama, a unilateral Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear sites is still very much a discretionary war — ill-timed, ill-advised and incapable of addressing the problem. For Netanyahu, dealing with Iran’s quest to develop the capacity to produce a nuke is rapidly becoming a matter of necessity. If Washington won’t act, Israel will — and soon.

But there’s a greater imperative now for papering over those differences — certainly in public. And both leaders will find a way to do so in a compelling fashion.

So both better get used to the uncertainty. The two of them may be around — and dealing with the Iran issue and one another — for some time to come.

This article originally appeared in Politico.