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Does Barack + Bibi = Disaster?

November 13, 2008 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Benjamin Netanyahu

Barack Obama spent the first week after being elected president of the United States planning the next four years. Yet, even though the office is occupied by somebody else until January, the pundits are already predicting the next administration's trouble spots.

At the top of the list is the outcome of the Israeli elections scheduled for this winter. If Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is sent back to the prime minister's office, we are told, a major conflict with the Obama White House is inevitable.

The assumption is that an Obama administration will regard "Bibi" Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace and that he will personally blow up the U.S.-Israel alliance.

History of Conflict
The Israeli left has promoted the myth that Netanyahu destroyed the peace process after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. But the true story is that the Oslo Accords were doomed from the start because of Yasser Arafat's insincerity and the continuation of Palestinian terror after the peace was signed.

Though Clinton did just about everything to prevent the Likud leader from winning the 1996 Israeli election except moving to Israel and voting himself, the two managed to co-exist warily for three years. Despite his "hard-line" reputation, Netanyahu wound up signing supplements to the Oslo treaties: the 1996 Hebron agreement and the 1998 Wye Plantation accord. He also sent an emissary to Damascus to discuss Syria's willingness to make peace in exchange for the Golan Heights.

However, his bellicose rhetoric is remembered more than his diplomacy. Contrary to Theodore Roosevelt's advice, Netanyahu always spoke loudly while carrying a very small stick.

But there was no mistaking the fact that the Clinton administration despised the Israeli. Bibi's warm relations with Clinton antagonist, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Christian Evangelical supporters of Israel deepened the distrust between the two governments. When Netanyahu was bounced out of office by Labor's Ehud Barak in 1999, the White House did little to disguise its jubilation.

Now, almost a decade later, Netanyahu is on the verge of a remarkable comeback. A combination of Likud and other right-wing parties has a better chance of putting together a governing coalition next year than does current foreign minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima and its potential allies.

With the Obama foreign-policy team likely to be comprised of either retreads from the last Democratic administration or others equally committed to pushing hard for Israeli-Palestinian peace, trouble with the Likudniks is on the horizon.

But, despite predictions of doom and gloom, is an Obama-Bibi blowup inevitable?

Not necessarily.

Though the idea that the new president will prioritize the comatose peace process and seek to bludgeon Netanyahu into submission may be a fantasy of some of Obama's fans on the Jewish left, it disregards his innate pragmatism.

Clinton committed himself, without reservation, to the concept that Yasser Arafat was a peacemaker rather than a two-faced terrorist. On the other hand, Obama arrives in the Oval Office with no such loyalty to the powerless Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. To suggest that rather than concentrate on more-urgent issues, Obama would risk any of his hard-won political capital on such a slender reed as Abbas is absurd.

Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Obama and his people are inherently hostile to Netanyahu, why would it make sense for the next president to try to force Israel into a corner when the prospects for peace are so bleak? With the Palestinians hopelessly split between the weak Abbas and his Hamas rivals who control Gaza, there is no way that any Israeli government, even the current Kadima-led coalition that is desperate to achieve an agreement, could do so.

After all, the reason why Bibi may be headed back to the prime ministership is the failure, not only of the Oslo process, but also of Kadima's unilateral withdrawal concept.

Ariel Sharon left the Likud and formed the centrist Kadima Party in 2005 because Netanyahu and his followers wouldn't support the withdrawal from Gaza. His attempt to end the old left-right split in Israeli politics was initially successful, but the the pullout was a disaster. It led directly to the creation of a Hamasistan that bombarded Israeli towns like Sederot. A similar retreat in the West Bank under the current circumstances is unthinkable. This failure of unilateralism has left many Israelis looking back to Likud for leadership.

There may be disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu, but the top foreign-policy item in the Middle East, outside of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not the dead-in-the-water talks with the Palestinians, but something on which Obama and Netanyahu may well agree: the threat from Iran's nuclear weapons program.

While the Republicans made much of candidate Obama's ill-considered offer of talks with Iran, Obama also pledged never to allow the Iranians to achieve nuclear capability. If Obama doesn't keep that promise, he will have far-bigger problems in the region than not liking Netanyahu.

A chastened Bibi -- who won't want a repeat of his difficulties with Clinton -- and Obama will both have good domestic political reasons to avoid unnecessary conflicts with each other.

Eager For Confrontation
Rather than the White House being the one spoiling for a fight with Israel, the trouble may instead come from those American Jews who despise Netanyahu and are eager for a confrontation.

The left-wing J Street lobby is committed to pushing Israel hard to revive negotiations, even though anybody who's paying attention to the facts on the ground there knows that both Fatah and Hamas are uninterested in peace. But the lobby's agenda has little to do with the realities of the Middle East and everything to do with American Jewish politics.

J Street's real goal is to undercut the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and, if possible, to supplant it as the voice of American Jewry on Israel. J Street's financial backers were strong supporters of Obama and hope to have a voice in the administration.

A Netanyahu victory in Israel will give them an opening, since they will seek to deprive a Likud government of the sort of support Israelis expect here. Since AIPAC will have to stand up for Netanyahu -- an Israeli who has been routinely and wrongly depicted in the American press as an extremist -- as it has for every past prime minister, J Street hopes to profit from the comparison.

The test for Obama may not be so much whether he and Bibi disagree on policy, but whether the president allows some of his Jewish supporters to maneuver him into a superfluous dispute that has nothing to do with the vital interests of either country.

The fate of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the next four years may rest on the question of whether Obama will let the gadflies of J Street start a battle that serves neither the cause of peace nor that of his administration's political agenda. 

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