Commentary Magazine


Obama and Netanyahu

Some call it “analysis.” Others admit it is mostly a political talking point. But whatever one decides to call it, the trend of speculating about possible Obama/Bibi Netanyahu interactions has caught up with media outlets and pundits all over. Just Google Obama + Bibi and see for yourself.

Will they be able to cooperate? Will America’s relations with Israel under respective Obama and Netanyahu governments be a “disaster,” as this article asks? These questions started right after Election Day, and are getting more traction by the day, especially since Netanyahu’s lead in Israeli polls has increased. They are now common assumptions among reporters and columnists, like the knowledgeable Amir Oren. He suggested today that the Scowcroft-Brzezinski plan presented in the Washington Post Friday (on which I wrote) will make Bibi’s life almost impossible:

Kadima, Labor and Meretz could adopt the four-point plan, which the Likud, in its current composition of Bibi-Benny-Bogey (Netanyahu, Begin and Ya’alon) cannot do. Obama or Bibi – that is what Scowcroft and Brzezinski are indirectly asking, in calling on Obama to immediately act in challenging the Israeli public to take a position.

In essence, what Israelis (and Americans) opposed to Netanyahu want is for Obama to help Livni get elected. Namely by making Israelis wary about having a Prime Minister who wouldn’t be able to get along with the next U.S. administration. But by inviting intervention, they assume a risk: If Netanyahu is elected anyway, this will complicate relations between Netanyahu and Obama even more.

But suspecting that relations between the Obama administration and a Netanyahu government might be strained is not unreasonable. Likud governments, in general, have a harder time with American Presidents: think of Begin and Reagan, or Shamir and George H. W. Bush. Netanyahu himself had a hard time with the Clinton administration, and many Clinton players are coming back–including his former nemeses Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Obama has also expressed, in the past, a skepticism toward Likud, saying that one does not need a “pro-Likud approach” in order to be pro-Israel.

However, ignoring the possible positives of such a development is one-sided. Here are a couple of reasons why Netanyahu and Obama should be able to work it out:

1. Obama will not want to be seen as someone looking for a fight with the Israeli government. It would give a lot of people an opportunity to say “we told you so.”

2. Netanyahu learned a lesson in 1999, when the Clinton administration helped bring about the end of his government. He will try to avoid similar mistakes.

3. Clinton of 2008 is not the Clinton of 2000. The collapse of Camp David and the second Intifada have taught her (and most other people) that one can’t force a peace by fiat.

4. Rhetoric aside, the differences between Netanyahu, Livni, and Barak are not hugely significant. Netanyahu himself won’t be nearly as important as the coalition he forms. And a centrist coalition headed by Netanyahu can do just fine.

Having said all that, bad feelings and old animosities could still hurt Netanyahu, both in the administration and even more so in Congress (Netanyahu was very close with Newt Gingrich, something Congressional Democrats are unlikely to forget). There are also many Jewish leaders who don’t like the idea of Netanyahu as Prime Minister.

The bottom line? I don’t think the possibility of a Netanyahu-Obama clash will hurt the Likud Party at the polls, because most Israelis attuned to such nuances are already in the anti-Bibi camp. This means that Netanyahu–if he manages to win, as polls predict–will have one challenge to overcome rather quickly. But then, so will the Obama administration.