Sometimes you have to give politicians a little credit. If you heard through the grapevine that two of your friends had been discussing you, with one calling you a “liar” and the other one replying, “I have to deal with him even more often than you,” chances are you would cut ties.
That’s exactly what former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama said, respectively, about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an unguarded moment at the G20 Summit in France two years ago.
Yet, in the aftermath of this exchange, it is the imperatives of statecraft, and not personal antipathies, that have won the day. Later this month, the recently re-elected Obama is slated to visit Israel to be hosted by the recently re-elected Netanyahu. Doubtless, journalists will be watching both leaders for uneasy body language or facial ticks, as if the entire U.S.-Israeli relationship can be interpreted through the fact that Bibi and Barack don’t like each other.
While warm relationships have enhanced the foreign policies of certain presidents — think Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — they are not a prerequisite for success.
The key issue with Obama’s visit to Israel is not whether the president and Netanyahu can learn to like each other, but whether they can agree on common goals. Perhaps the White House and Jerusalem might jointly decide that it’s time to close the gap between them, now that Obama and Netanyahu will remain in power until the middle of the decade.
Still there remain important strategic differences between the two countries that one visit alone is unlikely to resolve.
To begin with, there is Iran. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has, as expected, rejected the Obama administration’s proposal for direct talks on the nuclear program — an offer which, depending on your point of view, was either a smart way of outing the Iranians’ true intentions, or a weak gesture reminiscent of the “reset” policy with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
There is also the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, is on his way out, with a June election that may well see his rival, Ali Larijani, replace him. Larijani, however, is no reformer. A former nuclear negotiator, he is, like Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who regularly rants about his desire to destroy Israel.
Unless Obama can conclusively persuade Netanyahu that the sanctions imposed on Iran are working, their conversation on this topic is likely to reach the question of pre-emptive military action much more quickly than either would desire.
Then there is the situation in the Arab world. Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own population continues unabated, is the most pressing concern. America’s lack of leadership over the Syrian crisis has piled doubt upon the endless predictions that Assad’s regime is in its final days. Assad’s ire has turned again upon Israel, following an air strike in early February against what was reported to be a military research center near Damascus.
All this has increased the instability on Israel’s northern frontier, which exploded into war as recently as 2006, after Hezbollah, a client of both Syria and Iran, rained missiles on Israeli towns and cities in the region. Nor are any of the post-Assad scenarios particularly comforting, given the rising presence of Islamists in the Syrian resistance.
In addition to Syria, Egypt and potentially the rest of North Africa will be on the agenda as a result of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Israelis can’t be pleased with the continuing provision of more than $1 billion in American aid to Egypt annually, given the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel noises President Muhamed Morsi and his cronies have been making. At the same time, the Americans can point out that Morsi’s control over the Egyptian army is far from complete, and that, therefore, a strong Egyptian military is a useful counterweight to the Islamists.
Finally, there is the Palestinian issue. In Ramallah, Obama will face a Palestinian leadership whose current modus operandi is to diplomatically isolate, rather than engage with, Israel. Moreover, it is a leadership that remains divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Nor should we forget that the backing of Hamas by two key American allies in the region, Turkey and Qatar, threatens to bury the P.A.’s talks with Obama into migraine-inducing complexity.
The Palestinian question is not, as Chuck Hagel, the new defense secretary, believes, the key to stability in the Middle East. Right now, a Palestinian state alongside Israel — the much-vaunted and increasingly tired-looking “two-state solution” — will satisfy no one. Arab and Muslim radicals will denounce any hint of a deal as treachery, leaving P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, who hasn’t exactly established his credentials as an honest negotiator, with little room for maneuvering.
The wisest way of approaching Obama’s visit is to do so without expectations. If Obama repeats his election pledge to stand by Israel in the event of an attack, that outcome will be satisfying enough. The strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be tested not while Obama is in the country, but once he is gone.
Ben Cohen, the Shillman analyst for JNS.org, has also been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz and other publications.