Bibi and Barack: Where’s the conflict?

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Was that the sound of a dull thud I heard?

For two weeks before their critical getting-to-know-you meeting in Washington on Monday, newspapers and blogs were full of stories about how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama were likely to clash, and how their meeting would be a watershed in Mideast diplomacy and U.S.-Israel relations.

Some watershed; judging by the post-meeting reporting and commentary, the meeting was less than groundbreaking, maybe more like mundane. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post stuck rather cursory stories inside their front sections; reporting in the Israeli press was surprisingly restrained. Bloggers with axes to grind were predictably indignant, but since there was little hard news about the meeting their responses seemed strained.

What’s the story here – or the non-story?

Maybe it’s just what a few analysts predicted: that this week’s meeting was just the opening act in what is likely to be a long, very complex opera.  It was in neither leader’s interest to make a lot of news in Washington this week –  a caution reflected in their public statements.

A lot of the hype about the meeting was whipped up by interest groups with a vested interest in conflict between the two allies.  Sorry, guys, these are two smart politicians who will pull out their daggers when and where they want, not on the schedule of advocacy groups on the right and the left and a media eager for stories of conflict.

It’s entirely possibly they had tougher messages for each other in their lengthy private meeting, but they have a shared interest in presenting a solid front of amity.  No doubt there will be leaks in the next few days hinting that things didn’t go as smoothly as their official pronouncements suggested  – and it will be very hard for the rest of us to tell what’s real and what’s spin by folks who weren’t in the room with the two leaders.

Logic says there will be friction down the road, especially as the policies of the two allies diverge on Iran, but Netanyahu and Obama showed consummate skill in managing their first meeting in ways that started their relationship off on a good foot and avoided the public controversy that would make it harder for them to work together in the days ahead and deal effectively with their differences.

But both would do well to remember who they’re dealing with.

Netanyahu, battle scarred and wily, may be the pragmatist hiding behind an ideologue’s mask that some analysts see,  but he presides over a fragile coalition heavily dependent on the Israeli right.  Maybe he can be pushed – but only so far.  He’s not eager to be cast back into the political wilderness.

It’s easy for the left to say he should be squeezed, and squeezed hard, but that ignores the political realities created by his oddball coalition.

Obama, too, showed a willingness to compromise on some issues this week, but what is emerging from his young presidency is that this is a leader who is willing to take big chances to pursue his highest priority goals, while compromising and softening around the edges.

And a two-state solution, it is becoming clearer, is one of those goals. He, too, can be pushed only so far, or managed with glib words and vague promises.

There’s one other thing to remember.

The Obama administration is genuinely worried about Iran; it understands Israel’s existential angst; it regards a nuclear Iran as truly bad news. (see this week’s Jewish Week story here)

But while it insists “all options are on the table,” there’s no way this president – trying to extricate the nation from Iraq and Afghanistan, facing a calamitous federal budget, watching with horror as Pakistan and its big nuclear arsenal slips closer to collapse, which would put those weapons at the disposal of hardened jihadists – is going to start another war to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

There are good reasons Iran, while important, is not this administration’s top priority; there are good reasons, both strategic and political, that it is Bibi’s

That, more than the issue of Palestinian statehood, could be the biggest longterm source of strife between the two allies despite this week’s carefully orchestrated meeting in Washington.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.