Obama and Netanyahu Need One Other, But Neither One Has Room To Maneuver

Lack of Trust Means Little Chance of Breakthrough Visit

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published March 15, 2013, issue of March 22, 2013.
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On the most visible level, each holds diplomatic cards that the other needs. Obama needs a commitment from Netanyahu not to surprise him with a military raid on Iran that could drag America unwillingly into the fighting. Netanyahu needs a commitment from Obama that if Israel holds back and then finds Iran going nuclear, America will take action.

It sounds simple enough, but it’s anything but. Each leader is being asked for a commitment that takes him way outside his comfort zone and risks angering his political base. Each one’s commitment is contingent on the other keeping his promise. And neither trusts the other’s promises.

The Palestinian issue is even more complicated. Obama has promised not to present Netanyahu with any new plans or demands during this visit. He is planning, however, to press Netanyahu to come up with ideas of his own. Obama doesn’t have high hopes for a seriously revived peace process, but he knows that America’s European allies are increasingly impatient for some sign of progress. Netanyahu knows the same thing. All three — Netanyahu, Obama and the Europeans — are aware that the Palestinian street is on the verge of eruption.

Despite his own history, Netanyahu is reportedly ready to take a significant step toward the Palestinian leadership, in order to shore up Mahmoud Abbas and open the way toward some interim agreement. He’s promised as much to Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid in the course of coalition negotiations. Unfortunately, he’s been handed a government — largely at Lapid’s insistence — that includes Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party, which opposes Palestinian statehood in any form. Together with the upstart Likud hard-liners, Jewish Home might be able to veto any significant gesture that could bring the Palestinians back to the table.

The leaders’ domestic political agendas are less obvious, but no less compelling. Obama needs Israel to receive him warmly. Demonstrating a strong relationship with Israel and Israelis would help disarm some of his harshest critics at home. That’s no easy task, given Israel’s history of suspicion toward this president. He can’t generate the warmth by himself. No matter how much stagecraft his advance team puts together, he needs Netanyahu to embrace him.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, needs to show his public that he’s capable of standing up to Obama. Embracing the American president has no real political benefit for Netanyahu right now. He needs to treat Obama as coolly as he can get away with while still collecting whatever goodies he can extract.

In the end, each leader needs to get as much as he can from the other while giving away as little as he can, all the while maintaining an appearance of friendship that’s warm enough to please Obama’s domestic audience without alienating Netanyahu’s. It would be a tricky juggling act for a couple of players who were operating from a position of strength and trusted each others’ moves. For Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu it will take something close to a miracle.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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