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Putting Bibi and Barack on the Couch

As Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama look toward new terms in office, their long, tense relationship will now feature a new twist: The re-inaugurated American leader launches his second term greatly emboldened, while the Israeli prime minister emerges from a jolt of an election that has greatly weakened him.

Nevertheless, psychiatrists and political analysts alike believe that the impact on their forced marriage will be four more years of pretty much the same thing — pronounced disagreements alongside pragmatic attempts to prevent their relationship from falling apart.

The prospect of a continued but troubled cohabitation, say these experts, is almost predestined by their respective psychological makeups and the political reality confronting them. One partner may be Jewish and the other may be Protestant, but in political terms this is not a mixed marriage: Both are Catholics, joined in a union until death do they part, with divorce an unpardonable sin.

“Both of them have a job to do, and they will realize that working with each other is key to their jobs,” said Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They will both do their best.” Danin acknowledged, however, that both leaders “now have history” and that “this history will color their relationship.”

It won’t be easy. Aaron David Miller, a former senior Middle East adviser to four presidents, described that history succinctly as “the most dysfunctional relationship I’ve ever seen.”

Netanyahu emerged as a diminished winner in Israel’s January 22 elections when his party took a hit that is likely to force him into a narrow centrist coalition rather than a strong majority coalition leaning hard to the right, as had been expected. Obama, on the other hand, fresh off an impressive election victory, demonstrated in his January 20 inauguration speech that he sees his second term as a chance to achieve an ambitious agenda, undeterred by political constraints.

Thrown into this volatile political mix is the personality factor, a dimension of their relationship that has already bedeviled their interactions.

“Netanyahu’s views were shaped early on in life. It is hard to see him evolve,” explained Jerrold Post, professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs. Post directs the political psychology program of The George Washington University. Having just completed a psychological profile of Netanyahu for a chapter in an upcoming book on narcissism and politics, Post said that the Israeli leader’s character was shaped by “a very patriarchal father” who instilled in him the refusal to compromise.

Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, died last April. But Post believes that this will make no difference in the Israeli’s approach to public life and policy. “I think his father is psychologically looking down at him,” said Post, who was tasked with preparing psychological profiles of Israeli and Egyptian leaders in order to help President Jimmy Carter broker the 1978 Camp David peace accord.

Netanyahu’s unwillingness to compromise, influenced by his strong father figure, is, experts believe, an underlying reason for his clashes with Obama, who also has father issues in his family background. Indeed, his best-selling autobiography, which first brought him to wide public attention, is entitled “Dreams From My Father.”

Justin Frank, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst specializing in profiles of political leaders, said Obama is driven by an unconscious need to reconstitute his family, which split while he was a child, and to overcome the duality of growing up bi-racial. “He believes we’re all in this together, not only Democrats and Republicans, also Jews and Arabs,” said Frank, author of “Obama on the Couch,” a 2011 book analyzing President Obama’s psychological background.

Frank stressed that Obama’s greatest problem is with leaders who are unwilling to compromise. “He has a problem with people who are intransigent. He doesn’t know how to manage with them,” said Frank. The psychoanalyst explained that Obama believes he can use reason to convince people on the opposite side “and does not understand that inflexible people are not interested in reason.” He also stressed, however, that revenge is not part of Obama’s personality; he is unlikely to seek retribution from people that have hurt him.

Obama and Netanyahu’s stressed relationship is not the first such in the history of U.S.-Israeli ties. President George H. W. Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir were an unhappy political couple, as were Carter and Menachem Begin. But in both cases, unexpected events — the first Gulf War for Shamir and Bush, and the Egyptian peace overture for Begin and Carter — provided a greater cause that pushed the two leaders to overcome differences, at least for a while. “In the four years of Obama and Netanyahu, there was no such outside event,” said Miller, who now serves as vice president for current initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

This Obama-Netanyahu relationship is not expected to be tested until Netanyahu forms his new coalition, a task made more difficult by an Israeli election that distributed power among several parties. If Netanyahu turns to centrist parties to help form his coalition, the result could be a government that, at least rhetorically, remains committed to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict backed by Washington and the international community. If Netanyahu chooses to join forces with the right-wing parties, his relationship with Obama is certain to be harder.

But in either event, there is a mitigating factor: Based on his inauguration speech and his post-election victory speech, in which the Middle East conflict got not one word, Obama does not view the Middle East peace process as a top priority for his second term in office. Events often have a way of forcing that issue to the top of a president’s agenda. But if that does not happen, Obama’s friction with Netanyahu could remain limited.

The two leaders’ disagreements over dealing with Iran’s nuclear program could also be averted, since their differences have subsided recently. An effective sanctions regime has put Israel at ease for the short term, as has a stern promise by Obama to use military force if all other options fail to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“Obama considers Netanyahu to be a con man who does not understand Israel’s interests or the concept of reciprocity,” Miller said. “Netanyahu sees the president as someone who does not understand that at the end of the day, Israel is a tiny county in a dangerous neighborhood.”

The major clashes that made for this history were centered on disputes over the Palestinian issue and on Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied West Bank. Relations started off on the wrong foot, with a heated dispute over Obama’s demand for an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and over Netanyahu’s decision to expand building in East Jerusalem. Later, the two leaders’ clashing worldviews flared when Obama called for a peace accord based on the 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps. Obama and Netanyahu’s latest falling-out was over Israel’s demand that Washington lay down “red lines” for Iran, and over Obama’s insistence on not setting such conditions.

Obama has sought to shift the spotlight from his difficult personal relations with Netanyahu to his strategic effort to increase U.S. military support to Israel, and to the leading role that America has taken under his presidency in blocking anti-Israel activity in international bodies, including the United Nations. Moves like these, which are seen as less personal, indeed, almost default, positions, are likely to continue. Any step away from them by Obama would constitute a bomb thrown into the midst of his troubled cohabitation with Netanyahu, which, as with so many couples, could otherwise muddle on for some time on its own impetus.

Speaking to reporters as Israelis went to the polls January 22, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama will “wait and see the make-up of the next Israeli government,” adding that in any case, America’s goal remains to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “That has not changed, and it will not change,” he said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman

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