The delicate dance of Obama and Netanyahu
By Michael Singh Given the media buildup to Monday’s meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the casual observer could be forgiven for being a little bit disappointed. While the media portrayed these two as ideological foes bound to clash, their press conference gave the appearance of two leaders who, while far from soul-mates, ...
Given the media buildup to Monday’s meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the casual observer could be forgiven for being a little bit disappointed. While the media portrayed these two as ideological foes bound to clash, their press conference gave the appearance of two leaders who, while far from soul-mates, understand keenly their personal and national convergence of interest.
And so it should be. The U.S.-Israel alliance is deep and of abiding importance to both countries, now perhaps more than ever as the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran and emboldened rejectionists loom large in the Middle East. Whatever their differences, both men articulated the same essential concerns — that Iran be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that peace be established between Israel and the Palestinians. As I argued on this blog in February, Obama and Netanyahu may not be a match made in heaven, but there is more driving the men together than apart.
So we saw Netanyahu reach out to Obama by stressing his readiness for peace talks with the Palestinians and Syrians, without delay — and Obama nodding to Netanyahu by reasserting America’s commitment to Israel’s security and Jewish identity, and promising that talks with Iran would not be open-ended. Just as importantly, aides to both men backgrounding the media afterward stressed their bosses’ happiness with the outcome of the day’s discussions.
But the differences remain, and were as apparent in their press conference as in the media leaks that preceded the meeting. Obama repeatedly invoked Palestinian statehood, while Netanyahu did not mention it at all. Netanyahu thanked Obama for promising to keep all options on the table with respect to Iran, something which Obama did not, at least in his public remarks, actually do. In moves away from the table, Secretary Clinton clarified that the president was against even "natural growth" in Israeli settlements, implying that Israeli assurances that no new settlements would be built were insufficient. Also, CIA chief Leon Panetta publicly warned against an Israeli strike on Iran, as Defense Secretary Gates had done before.
In the world outside Washington, the silent parties to the Obama-Netanyahu talks made their own moves. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his group was ready to govern Lebanon if it won the upcoming parliamentary elections. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei railed against America and encouraged Iranians to vote for anti-Western candidates in upcoming presidential elections, and Iran reportedly test-fired a missile that could reach Europe. Highly talented and well-respected Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was reappointed to head a reshuffled PA government. Taken together, these developments underscore that Obama and Netanyahu face serious challenges, and rare opportunities.
Oval Office meetings tend not to make policy but to build relationships — between nations, between leaders, and between their trusted aides who coordinate beforehand. It would have been too much to expect a great deal out of this first meeting between the new American president and Israeli prime minister, who are still feeling each other out and still shaping their own views on policy. But America and Israel can afford their leaders only a brief courtship, before the U.S. and Israeli governments must resolve their differences and work in concert and with all speed to address the mutual challenges before them. The first official Obama-Netanyahu meeting leaves me hopeful that both men desire to do so, but still waiting to see if they can corral their bureaucracies and get it done.
Michael Singh is a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC
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