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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mr. Netanyahu goes to Washington

Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is going to Washington this Saturday night (after quick meetings with Egypt's President Mubarak and possibly Jordan's King Abdullah this week). The media here are rife with speculation about how the two will get along. I brought you some of that speculation on Friday. Today I'd like to bring you some more and some of my own thoughts about what I expect to happen.

There are two schools of thought. One is that both Netanyahu and Obama understand that they have an interest in working together and that like President Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2001, they will find their way to a working relationship.
WHEN NETANYAHU travels to Washington next Saturday night, it will be difficult not to draw comparisons between this visit and the first visit to the US in March 2001 of then newly-elected prime minister Ariel Sharon.

Now, as then, a new Israeli prime minister will be going to visit a new US president. Then, as now, the new Israeli prime minister was portrayed as obstinate and hawkish, not a man of peace.

If anything, Sharon's image in the US in the spring of 2001 was worse than that of Netanyahu today - Sharon, after all, was the architect of the Lebanon War, the "butcher of Beirut," the godfather of the settlements.

Moreover, when Sharon went to visit newly elected US president George W. Bush, he was widely seen as being the individual who triggered the Palestinian violence in September 2000, with his much-publicized visit to the Temple Mount. By comparison, Netanyahu today seems a veritable Yossi Beilin.

And then, as now, there was overwrought speculation of an imminent clash between Sharon and Bush. Sharon was Sharon, and Bush, well, Bush was his father's son, and his father was not exactly known for a warm spot in his heart toward Israel. Back in March 2001, the new US president was still a very unknown quantity regarding Israel, and everyone was imaging the worst.

But Sharon went to Washington, and despite the perceived differences, laid the foundations for a solid working relationship with the Bush administration. Burned in the 1980s in Washington, stung badly by his persona non-grata status there for so many years, Sharon embarked on his first trip as prime minister determined to do everything he could to cultivate confidence in the new US administration. And he was able to build that confidence. It took more than one trip, but that first trip laid the foundation.

"We will not surprise each other," Sharon said, as he emerged from his first meeting with Bush. "I said that I will not surprise them, and they will not surprise us."

That, as well as his frequent remarking that Bush understands Sharon will "do what he says, and say what he will do," was the cornerstone of his relationship with Bush.
The other school of thought says that Netanyahu and Obama are headed for a cultural clash and that the 'special relationship' between the US and Israel is already on the rocks (Hat Tip: Little Green Footballs).
Senior officials in Jerusalem expressed concern recently over the sharp decline in the coordination between Israel and the United States on security and state affairs since President Barack Obama's entered the White House and especially since the formation of Israel's new government.

Senior White House officials told their Israeli counterparts that Obama will demand Netanyahu completely suspend construction in the settlements, the officials said.

"Obama's people brief their Israeli counterparts in advance much less about security and Middle East policy activities than the Bush administration used to," the officials said.

In addition, when they do brief Israeli officials, they don't consult with them or coordinate their statements in advance.

This has caused several coordination "malfunctions" between the two states in the past two months, they said.


However, the official said the new administration no longer seems to see Israel as a "special" or "extraordinary" state in the Middle East, with which the U.S. must maintain a different dialogue than with other states.

"The feeling is that the dialogue and coordination with the Arab states and with Europe is today no less important to the U.S. and perhaps more so than with Israel," the official said.
The two links above - one from JPost and one from Haaretz - are from writers who have very different perspectives on the Netanyahu - Obama meeting. And one could argue that each newspaper is reflecting its political consensus. JPost is mostly a centrist paper and Herb Keinon, who wrote the article I quoted from above, is probably center-right politically. Haaretz is Israel's most leftist paper and while I have not seen enough of Barak Ravid to form an opinion, Aluf Benn is one of their most leftist writers.

One could look at the two articles and say JPost is trying to support Netanyahu and is therefore trying to minimize the possibility of a confrontation, while Haaretz is out to get Netanyahu and is therefore trying to promote a confrontation. Looking at things that way would be wrong. The proof is that in the post I did on Friday, Yaron Dekel from the very leftist Israel Radio does not believe there will be a confrontation, while Caroline Glick - one of the most right wing writers on the Post - believes there will be one.

All in all, I would say that a confrontation - or at least a much cooler relationship than there was between George W. Bush and either Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert - is likely. Here's why.

First, the trepidation cited by Keinon that many Israelis had for the Bush - Sharon relationship was largely the result of bad memories people had here of Bush 41. George H. W. Bush was under the influence of his pal James Baker, and from Israel's perspective was vehemently anti-Israel. It wasn't based on anything Bush 43 - George W. Bush - had said.

Furthermore, the bad memories of Bush 41 here were made worse by the fact that the Prime Minister who worked opposite him - Yitzchak Shamir - was a dogmatic, principled man who would not take any risks for the sake of a relationship with the American President. In fact, after he lost the 1992 election, Shamir said that he would have continued the Madrid talks 'forever' without letting them go anywhere. I liked Shamir a lot, but he was clearly not the kind of suave politician who would appeal to George H. W. Bush.

Ariel Sharon, on the other hand, was a leftist at heart. Despite his 'tough' reputation, he had grown up in the Labor party and came to Likud only later in life. He was not someone who had spent his entire political career on Israel's right.

Fast forward to Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Netanyahu has been a Likudnik all his adult life. His politics have changed little from the MIT debate in 1978 in which he spoke against a 'Palestinian' state. While Netanyahu is much more attuned to American nuances than any of his predecessors (with the possible exception of Olmert), and therefore understands that he has to say that Israel is bound by its prior agreements, deep down I don't believe that Netanyahu really wants a 'Palestinian' state. That's not to say that a 'Palestinian' state could not happen during Netanyahu's term. It could happen, but only in the unlikely event that the 'Palestinians' jump through all the proper hoops.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been obsessed with the 'Palestinians' since the very beginning of his political career. Even if the 'Palestinians' are not the most important thing to the American people (or for that matter to much of the 'moderate' Arab world anymore), to Obama they are the most important issue in the Middle East. That's partly because of Obama's long-standing commitment to them - a commitment that he set aside during his rise to power - and partly because of Obama's worldview (shaped by his advisors, including 20 years listening to Reverend Wright's sermons every Sunday) that sees Israel as "an aggressive, Western imperialist power exploiting indigenous people of color who simply wish to be free." That's a religious belief - not something with which one can really argue rationally.

So when Allahpundit asks totally rationally
If you’re Obama and your worst nightmare is an unexpected Israeli attack on Iran that provokes a regional war and jeopardizes the world’s oil supply, why on earth would you alienate the Israeli leadership? Wouldn’t you want to get as close to them as possible, to exert maximum influence? This doesn’t add up.
the answer is that with Obama this isn't a question of logic. It's emotional. It's religious. It's visceral.

Jew-hatred usually is. Ask Jimmy Carter.

What will happen in Washington next Monday? I don't expect a complete blowup (although given the way Shimon Peres was treated last week (Hat Tip: Pajamas Media), that's entirely possible too). But I also don't expect a warm, cordial relationship. The press conference after their meeting should be 'interesting.' In addition to looking for signs of disagreement (which I believe there will be), one should also watch closely how much time is spent on Iran and how much on the 'Palestinians.' My guess is that we will see much more of the latter than of the former. After all, Obama is the host, and the 'Palestinians' are his top foreign policy priority.

It's going to be a long four years.


At 9:44 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There is not much Bibi can do to change Obama's view of Israel which as Caroline Glick observed, is formed not by an objective appreciation of the facts but by an ideology that says Israel is the obstacle to a Middle East peace. Therefore, nothing Bibi says or does is going to bring him American sympathy or understanding. Israel is going to have stand up for itself instead of mindlessly following the so-called two state solution, which would be signing Israel's death warrant. That means Israel is going to have a very difficult and unpleasant relationship with the Obama White House over the next four years but even a complete Israeli surrender on the terms Obama wants will not change them to the kind Israel got accustomed to during the Bush years. And sacrificing Israel's vital national interests is not worth pleasing a particular American President and they do come and go.

At 10:09 PM, Blogger robotsoul said...

I tend to agree with the sentiment that this is a foundational meeting. All this talk about stalemates is palaver. What will most likely happen is a the two will make friends then have a long, useless, well-publicized conversation about Iran. This video explains: http://www.newsy.com/videos/israel_u_s_summit_don_t_hold_back/


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