WASHINGTON — Two tall, quick-witted, dizzyingly self-confident and articulate communicators who are gearing up for reelection battles they think they’ll win, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have much in common. Oh, and they also each believe they know what’s best for Israel. And that the other doesn’t.
We saw this playing out publicly over peacemaking with the Palestinians. It is now playing out privately over stopping Iran’s progress to the bomb.
Obama has consistently argued that Israel’s long-term interests require it to do its utmost to reach an accommodation with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – before Abbas vacates the stage and an uncompromising Hamas strengthens further. He cannot understand why Netanyahu would keep building in settlements that will need to be dismantled for a viable two-state solution. He thinks Israeli interests required Netanyahu to extend the settlement freeze in order to keep Abbas at the negotiating table.
After all, the president reasons, only through a partnership to Palestinian statehood, under which Israel would relinquish much of the West Bank, can Israel hope to remain what almost all Israelis want it to remain – a state at once democratic and overwhelmingly Jewish in demographic character. Sometimes, it is plain, he and his administration think Israel needs to be saved from the right-wing’s settlement obsession.
Netanyahu, for his part, believes Obama overestimates Abbas’s willingness to lead his people to a viable accord. He sees few signs that Abbas is prepared to challenge the unyielding narrative that Arafat bequeathed to the Palestinian people, which despicably held that there was no Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and by extension no Jewish national legitimacy in the Middle East. Regarding himself as willing to compromise on territory, however painful the wrench, willing to partner the Palestinians to statehood, he just doesn’t see the partner.
He thinks Obama let Abbas off the hook by pressuring Israel to halt settlements as a pre-condition for negotiations, costing critical leverage. And now he sees Abbas, intolerably, partnering with Hamas and seeking UN endorsement for independence without the inconvenience of having to negotiate basic modalities with Israel.
The American and Israeli leaders’ divergent thinking on the Palestinian issue has been publicly evidenced several times. The most recent major case was a year ago, when Obama unexpectedly put forward a partial vision of the road ahead. He called for negotiations based on the pre-1967 lines, which would require a dramatic Israeli concession, but did not make similarly explicit the need for a parallel dramatic Palestinian concession, the abandonment of the demand for a “right of return.”
Among the consequences of their conflicting positions was the sight of a plainly unhappy Israeli prime minister lecturing a politely tolerant American president, in the Oval Office, with the cameras running, about the ostensible indefensibility of those narrow, pre-67 borders.
But the Middle East in the spring of 2012 bears strikingly little resemblance to the region of just a year ago. And so when Obama and Netanyahu sit together in the White House this week, their differences on matters Palestinian will be relegated to the margins. This year, the central subject has shifted: it’s all about Iran.
What hasn’t changed is the divergent thinking.
Obama, as he told Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview just last Monday, believes economic pressure could yet persuade the “self-interested” regime in Tehran to halt its drive to the bomb. Netanyahu fears that a regime that preaches the destruction of the Jewish state as constituting God’s will has very different calculations of self-interest.
Obama, though restating that a military option is available if needed, argues that sanctions are starting to have a real impact. Netanyahu said in Cyprus 10 days ago that, sadly, they are not.
Obama indicated to Goldberg that resort to the military option at this stage would be a grave mistake – “a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim.” Netanyahu worries that while the US may feel it has more leeway – being further away, lower on the rapacious Islamic Republic’s list of priorities, and equipped with more devastating nuke-busting firepower – for prime target Israel, time is fast running out.
As his Defense Minister Ehud Barak keeps saying, Iran is getting near to “the zone of immunity,” after which its nuclear program will be militarily beyond reach – beyond the stage where Saddam Hussein’s Osirak was smashed and Bashar Assad’s Korean reactor shattered. However complicated it might be to deal with Iran now, Barak said in a curiously overlooked Israel Channel 2 interview 10 days ago, it will be a whole lot more complex later on.
Netanyahu does not doubt that Obama is determined to prevent Iran from attaining the bomb. It is, rather, the “timeline” that divides them, as officials on both sides acknowledge. The red lines are drawn in different places.
The president told Goldberg that “Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.”
Not so, some in the Israeli decision-making hierarchy would counter, and Barak’s public comments indicate that he is among them. The “lead time” would not be long enough. A nuclear weapons-capable Iran is an unstoppable Iran, and therefore Iran must not be allowed to reach the stage where a break out to the bomb is possible.
The public aspect of this week’s Obama-Netanyahu talks is likely to be less treacherous than some of the previous installments. Netanyahu will be going in at the front door of the White House, not through the tradesman’s entrance. Obama likely won’t step out in mid-session to have dinner with his family. We’ll probably be spared an updated Netanyahu public lecture in the Oval Office. There’ll be a lot of talk about shared interests and unprecedented coordination – which will accurately reflect the private discussions.
The president will be doing what he can to encourage Netanyahu and the Israeli leadership to come round to his way of thinking — restating his commitment to stop Iran, explaining his approach and offering assurances. “We’ve got Israel’s back,” as he said to Goldberg. He knows that the more robust he sounds, in public and in private, the smaller the ostensible need for Israel to consider acting alone.
But “ultimately,” as Obama went on, “the Israeli prime minister and the defense minister and others in the government have to make their decisions about what they think is best for Israel’s security.” He might explain, cajole, even urge, and he will remain convinced that his way is the right way. But “I don’t presume to tell them what is best for them.”
So when all is said and done, when the press conferences have dispersed and the hands have been warmly shaken, Netanyahu and Obama will separate as convinced as ever that each knows better than the other what’s good for Israel. And while Obama leads America and feels a great deal of responsibility for the rest of the world, the president knows that it is Netanyahu who leads Israel – Netanyahu who carries, and should he deem necessary will take, the final responsibility for the Jewish state.