Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Obibi

As I wrote here two months ago, the numerous predictions about the future relationship between a Netanyahu Israeli government and the new Obama administration tended to suffer from extensive partisanship:

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.

Sure enough, Kadima’s (lagging in the polls far behind Netanyahu’s Likud) has this week  adopted the predictable “Netanyahu will clash with Obama” line. And the chatter over Bibi’s ability to handle delicate relations with the Obama team is probably going to take over the campaign in the coming week:

According to Livni, “Obama’s policy could be an opportunity for Israel. He wants to be involved and solve the conflict. His pressure will be directed at those who refuse this process, and Israel must choose whether it’s on the side advancing a peace process or on the side of those refusing it, otherwise there will be an inevitable rift with the United States here.”

It’s the perfect time for a last minute attempt to stop Netanyahu from winning. Later in the week, Israel expects the first visit of the new special envoy, George Mitchell, and which sparks the question: did the new administration decided to send him here in the hope that it will help both Livni and Labor’s Ehud Barak? The Obama people are not naïve, and could have assumed that Mitchell’s visit two weeks before the election might become a political football.

In any event, the “Obibi” battle has begun and is now the center-left’s last best hope. Using quotes dug from books and articles by Dennis Ross — senior advisor to Obama and special envoy from the nineties — both Kadima and Likud are trying to make their points about the Obama/Bibi duo:

Both parties intend to feature quotes from Ross in their campaigns to paint a picture of how Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu would get along with new US President Barack Obama should Netanyahu return to the Prime Minister’s Office… “Bibi rarely seemed to know how to act on his ideas – how to present them, to whom, and even when to do so,” Ross wrote about Netanyahu in a quote from his book, The Missing Peace, that was distributed by Kadima. “Translating an idea into action seemed beyond his grasp. It was not lack of intelligence… it was the lack of judgment… but there was something more: Often he would come up with ideas simply to get himself out of a jam.”… The Likud, by contrast, focused on Ross quotes that were policy-oriented and not personal. They distributed interviews with Ross and articles he wrote in which he regretted not insisting upon reciprocity with the Palestinians as Netanyahu had advised him.

As Yossi Verter writes today, Netanyahu’s problem is that he can’t erase the past. His relations with the Clinton administration, when he was Prime Minister between 1996-1999, were not good. But does this necessarily mean that the 2009 Netanyahu will not get along with Obama? The answer is no — not if Netanyahu can get what he wants:

Netanyahu understands this very well. He knows this is his last chance. He does not want to leave the stage humiliated and outcast, as he did 10 years ago. So his strategic goal, if he is elected, is to add Labor and Kadima or either one to his party, as an anti-Obama flak jacket.

And truth is, Netanyahu wants Labor or Kadima or both in his coalition for many reasons — among them getting help with Israel’s image abroad (remember Shimon Peres’s role in the Ariel Sharon government?). He also wants them to join because, like Obama, he understands the power of governing from the center. The question, though, will not be whether Netanyahu invites Labor and Kadima to join him. He will — and he will be willing to pay a heavy political price for it. The question is whether the two (or one of them) will accept the invitation. Kadima, if defeated, will be a party in total disarray. Labor’s Barak supposedly wants to remain as Defense Minister, but the Young (relatively speaking) Turks of the Labor Party still say that they will not let the party join a “Netanyahu government.” Thus. somewhat ironically, while both Labor and Kadima warn of possible friction between Israel and the Obama administration, one of the keys with which to avoid such friction will be in their hands.