On Wednesday in New York, Barack Obama will host Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for one last time as president.
You can be certain that the meeting will be friendly — albeit kind of resignedly so. These two super-articulate, super-self-confident leaders, who kept on winning elections against the odds, have long since been reconciled to the fact that they see the world differently, and that neither is going to change the other’s mind.
They’ll talk warmly about the unbreakable alliance between our two countries. Netanyahu will thank Obama for the latest, most tangible expression of that alliance — America’s $38 billion investment in Israel’s capacity to defend itself. Obama, for his part, will doubtless stress the value of the aid package in serving America’s national interests via a strong Israel in the treacherous Middle East. They’ll both mean every word that they say. The US-Israeli alliance is indeed robust, and mutually vital — existentially so, in Israel’s case.
But the Obama-Netanyahu years have been years of at least somewhat missed opportunity — inevitably, given those differing worldviews; unfortunately, for both our countries and their shared causes. We truly are allies in the most basic of battles — to try to guarantee and widen people’s freedoms, to try to marginalize and de-fang the death-cultists. America and Israel, fighting that same fight, could have achieved more if Obama and Netanyahu had gotten along better, had trusted each other more, had bridged their differences more effectively.
Current affairs would appear for now to be vindicating Netanyahu’s conviction that in our part of the world, and a good way beyond, only the strong survive, over Obama’s more conciliatory strategies. The Muslim world, despite the president’s consistent efforts at outreach, has not mellowed; its moderates have not galvanized to drown out its extremists. Non-intervention in Syria has enabled Bashar Assad to keep on massacring his people by the hundreds of thousands, reducing that country to a bloody anarchy in which each vicious group of killers seeks to outdo the other in brutality.
The US, along with much of Europe, are having to fight a surge in terrorism now. Historians will judge how much of the current upsurge can be traced to that determined effort at non-intervention in Syria — and the consequent stream of departing refugees, extremists among them. Dismally, the Obama-led West is learning the truth of that aphorism about the Middle East being the dinner guest that simply won’t go home, no matter how much you try to ignore it.
Meanwhile Iran, despite being allowed to retain parts of its rogue nuclear program under last year’s accord, has not warmed in any substantive way to the free world or to free-world values. Quite the contrary. Its leadership castigates the United States on a near-daily basis, continues to seek the destruction of Israel, creates havoc throughout the region, oppresses its people — tyranny-as-usual. And it can now also wait out the nuclear deal’s sunset clauses and seek the bomb.
With Obama’s America deemed by other long-standing allies in this part of the world to have pivoted away, to have opened the door to a Russian resurgence, to have been outmaneuvered by Iran, countries including Saudi Arabia and Egypt look to Israel as the next-best, next-strongest thing. A Saudi general visited Jerusalem a few weeks ago. He met the director-general of the Foreign Ministry and a senior IDF officer in the King David Hotel. He sent out a photograph of him and his delegation meeting with a group of Israeli Knesset members. Just one, until recently unthinkable, public consequence of the fear of Iran that grips so much of this region, and that has created greater dependencies with Israel.
I don’t think most Israelis believe Obama has ever wanted to harm Israel. I certainly don’t think he has. But I think most Israelis, and I’m one of them, believe he insistently refused to internalize some of the challenges this region poses and this very small country faces.
His and his secretary of state’s conviction that we can afford to take the risk of a major West Bank withdrawal is simply not credible. We need to be able to protect ourselves against terrorists and extremists in the Palestinian areas, and against the challenges — known and unpredictable — from the wider neighborhood. A high-tech security envelope cannot replace freedom of operation for Israel’s military and security apparatuses.
Netanyahu’s argument, at the height of the last war with Hamas two years ago, that the Gaza experience proves the dangers of enemies tunneling under and rocketing over adjacent evacuated territory is potent. Hezbollah’s massive missile capacity, deployed across the Lebanon border to which we withdrew amid global applause 16 years ago, underlines the point. Had Israel done what Obama and Kerry would have had us do in the West Bank, had we relinquished a large degree of our control, we would today be facing a terror war on a whole different scale.
A greater willingness by Obama and his administration to recognize some of these dangers just might have created deeper trust with Netanyahu, and might have encouraged Netanyahu to take greater domestic political risks and work harder to foster an improved political and economic climate in the West Bank. An Obama more empathetic and more sober about the dangers we face might have had more success, for example, in discouraging the prime minister from building homes for Jews in the West Bank outside the settlement blocs. A US administration prepared to distinguish between construction over the Green Line in Jerusalem neighborhoods and in the settlement blocs, which has wide support among Israelis, and construction in isolated settlements, which has far less support and is far more damaging to the practical, geographical prospects of Palestinian statehood, could have made more headway toward what it so rightly regards as the vital two-state solution — the only framework that guarantees our long-term future as a Jewish and democratic state. Instead, all building beyond the pre-1967 lines was routinely condemned, and the condemnations were routinely ignored.
Behind the smiles and the handshakes and the warm words, Obama will end his presidency continuing to believe that Netanyahu is a hard-headed, arrogant, pessimist, who had the audacity to lecture him in the Oval Office and lobby against him in Congress, and who harms Israel by failing to do more to encourage the possibility of conciliation among the Palestinians.
And Netanyahu will walk away aggrieved that the president cut a dangerous accord with Iran, having inaccurately claimed that no deal would satisfy Israel, and most recently asserted implausibly that Israel’s security officials now back it.
Netanyahu will walk away contemplating the irony of John Kerry criticizing Israel’s ostensible failure to maintain “pinpoint” accuracy in targeting terrorists in the Gaza Strip — in that ignominious open-mic incident two years ago — as the US inadvertently kills dozens of wrongly identified troops and hits other unintended targets in the fight against Islamic State.
Netanyahu will walk away cognizant that Obama, the president whose key promise was of change, will end his term with so much of the American electorate so bitterly seeking a change from his leadership and philosophy that it could even elect the inexperienced, intolerant Donald Trump in his stead.
Most tangibly, while Obama will soon be preparing for life as an ex-president, Netanyahu will walk away from their New York meeting still charged with the responsibility of protecting his country for the foreseeable future.
Whoever comes next, will be just fine, I think Netanyahu may say to himself when he bids farewell to the president. And also, with a rather satisfied air, and perhaps just a little triumphantly: Well, I’m glad that’s over.
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