Bibi’s Excellent Washington Adventure
The Israeli prime minister has come to make amends with the United States. At least for now.
After six years of difficult relations, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu won’t be drinking buddies anytime soon. But judging from the public aspects of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this week, the Obama-Bibi wars are over or at least suspended.
On Monday, all you had to do was observe the photo op before their White House meeting began to feel the (manufactured) love. There were no lectures, icy stares, or sardonic glances this time. In fact, there were even a few smiles. You didn’t need to read tea leaves or goat entrails to know that both the president and the prime minister have decided — however grudgingly — to turn the page.
This was certainly evident on the U.S side. While taking questions from the press before the meeting, Obama left all of his usual talking points at home. He made no reference to settlement activity; none to the symmetry in which both Israelis and Palestinians are deemed responsible for the current impasse. Instead, the American president offered a forceful defense of Israel’s right and responsibility to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism and strongly affirmed that the “narrow issue” of a disagreement over the Iran accord shouldn’t be allowed to obscure broader agreement on the goal of stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Narrow issue? This uttered by a president whose tenor and tone toward Israel and the deal have essentially been from Father Knows Best: “The Iran deal is good for the United States and Israel. So Mr. Netanyahu, just get over it.”
Netanyahu also seems to have changed his tune. I’ve seen the Israeli prime minister in enough situations to know the difference between tense Bibi and relaxed Bibi. And both at the White House and at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where the prime minister received the Irving Kristol Award, what I saw was a relaxed leader who may have lost the fight over the Iran agreement but who believes there’s no reason to push that issue any further with the Americans. Instead, what matters now is demonstrating that Israel can still secure a large package of security and military assistance from the United States and hasn’t irrevocably damaged its ties to Washington. The relatively short Q&A with AEI Senior Vice President Danielle Pletka really is worth watching. It’s Bibi at his best: calm yet forceful, focused not just on security issues but also on Israel as a revolutionary innovator doing business with China and India. It ain’t for nothing that Madeleine Albright once described Netanyahu as the Israeli Newt Gingrich, pugnacious and partisan but very smooth. The latter trait was on display in Washington during this week’s visit.
Even more intriguing was the prime minister’s appearance at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a Democratic-leaning think tank, where you might have assumed that tense and pugnacious Bibi might have shown up primed to do battle. CAP President Neera Tanden clearly wanted to be gracious, rather than confrontational, though. (I think that was a smart move.) But even before they got into the Q&A, it was clear from Netanyahu’s body language that he was there not to fight but to make nice.
So what’s happening here? How does a relationship that has been both dysfunctional and unproductive apparently get reset so quickly?
First, there’s no reset, if by “reset” we mean a fundamental change in how Obama and Netanyahu see the challenges they face or the degree to which they really like or trust one another. This relationship isn’t like your DVD player. You can’t hit the red button on the Israeli-U.S. relationship and return it to normal. There are fundamental differences between these two in how they see the Middle East, from the two-state solution to settlements to the Iranian threat still. And unlike other Israeli-American duos — Begin and Carter, Shamir and Bush the elder, Netanyahu and Clinton — where relations were dysfunctional but still sometimes productive, Bibi and Obama have only dysfunction.
There is, however, a growing recognition between these two that fighting about the issues that most divide them — Iran and the peace process — is bad policy and bad politics for both. Why fight? The Iran deal is done. Obama won; Bibi lost. This isn’t the time for retribution or whining. Instead, the focus needs to be on transactional deals between Israel and the United States and the management of differences. Netanyahu won’t press Congress to muck up the deal’s implementation. And the Obama administration will work to create a new security memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Israel and perhaps increase the amount of aid. The two sides will work together to build a deterrent capacity against Iran and seek to share intelligence with regard to monitoring the agreement. Follow-up discussions on the MOU will begin next month.
As to the peace process, the Obama administration already paved the way for lowering tensions by essentially admitting (again) just days before the prime minister’s arrival that there’s not much chance of reaching a two-state solution on this president’s watch. This is more than just lowering expectations for this visit. Because once you assume that a two-state solution isn’t possible, then management, not resolution, becomes the goal. And managing Israeli-Palestinian tensions, however difficult, is easier for Netanyahu than dealing with endgame issues like borders or Jerusalem. We don’t have the details on what the prime minister brought to the White House and State Department in terms of peace process proposals. But it’s unlikely the White House wants a fight on this issue now, particularly against the backdrop of Palestinian terrorism. Indeed, by pushing security for Israel and backing off the peace issue, the administration is using honey now in case the president wants to apply vinegar next year in the form of leaving behind some sort of peace process legacy, such as outlining an endgame solution by identifying the “Obama parameters” on issues like borders and Jerusalem.
Leaving behind a legacy on Israel-Palestine is not Obama’s only concern and is likely not the most important one in the year or so that remains on his presidential clock. This president would like to see a Democrat succeed him. The last time a two-term president passed on the White House to a member of the same party was more than a quarter century ago. The last thing Obama or the Democrats need is a major row with Israel during a presidential election year. It would only give the Republicans ammunition to attack the administration and the Democratic nominee. Should that nominee be Hillary Clinton, a fight with Israel would put her in an awkward position of walking away from the White House. Her recent article in Forward was designed to tout her pro-Israel credentials and the extent to which she’d restore relations with Israel’s government. Still, as Obama’s former secretary of state, she can’t walk too far without undermining her own credibility. After all, she will be hammered for helping shape the very policies that led to the Obama-Bibi wars during the first administration.
Finally, Netanyahu knows that more than likely, come January 2017, he’ll be around and Obama won’t. And he also knows that during the U.S. presidential campaign before that point, the atmosphere will be filled with Republicans and Democrats competing with one another to show who loves and admires Israel (and its prime minister) the most. Bibi will fight Obama and push back against the United States on the peace process and Iran if he needs to. But for now he can maneuver and evade, secure in the knowledge that in just over 51 weeks America will have a new president-elect, one who is most likely, at least in tone and style, more congenial than the old one. Then the only question is how long it will take the new president and Bibi to start annoying one another.
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