When President Obama’s helicopter convoy deposits him in Jerusalem on March 20 for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it will bring together two leaders who, despite their famed mutual antipathy, have far more in common than either man’s partisans would readily admit. It’s a perfect recipe for trouble.
Both men have come fresh off re-election campaigns that dealt each of them a dramatic reversal of fortune. Netanyahu had just completed a successful four-year term marked by economic prosperity and quiet borders. Israel’s voters rewarded him with a drubbing that erased one-third of his parliamentary strength. Conservative columnist Ben-Dror Yemini calculated in Maariv after the January 22 election that a total of 265,000 voters, 7% of the electorate, had moved from the right to the left (just as you’d expect in a Hebrew-speaking state). The shift turned the right’s previous 227,000-vote advantage into a 38,000-vote deficit. Netanyahu’s tortuous, white-knuckle struggle to negotiate a new coalition was merely a symptom of his weakened condition.
Obama’s reversal was the mirror image of Netanyahu’s. After a first term marked by recession, unemployment, legislative paralysis and dismal approval numbers, voters re-elected him with a convincing mandate, a strengthened Senate majority and a popular-vote win, if not a working majority in the House of Representatives.
Where it counts, though, the two leaders share a critical liability: Each faces a nettlesome bloc of lawmakers who refuse to recognize their party’s electoral losses and promise to fight single-mindedly for the agenda the voters just rejected. In Obama’s case, we’re talking about the Republican-led House. In Netanyahu’s case, it’s a group of hard-line young Turks in his own Likud party who did well in last fall’s party primary, edging aside veteran moderates like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. Their extremism arguably contributed to the party’s losses in the general election. Regardless, they now consider themselves the rising voice of what’s still the ruling party.
Thanks to their parliamentary headaches, the two leaders are now caught in strikingly parallel situations. Both are their nation’s unchallenged leaders and yet, paradoxically, both have little room to maneuver at a moment when their countries face critical decisions.
That’s the baggage that the two men will carry with them when they come together in Jerusalem on March 20. Each approaches the other from a position of weakness, wounded, wary, hoping for cooperation yet suspicious of the other’s intentions. Each has important assets to offer the other, both in the international arena and on their respective home fronts. If they can overcome the obstacles, they might be able to help each other. They could just as easily undercut each other, under pressure from their respective rear guards and their own contrary instincts.