Like classic American football games that are known by short titles – “The Ice
Bowl,” “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Drive” – some of the more memorable
White House meetings between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President
Barack Obama lend themselves to this type of labeling.
There was “The
Ambush” – that first meeting in May 2009, just weeks after both men took office,
when Obama was determined to establish new rules of engagement (some would less
charitably say he wanted to put the new prime minister in his place), and
blind-sided Netanyahu with a call for a complete settlement freeze.
was “The Disrespect” – that memorable White House meeting in March 2010, soon
after the blowup with the US over the announcement of plans to build in
Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood that took place during Vice President Joe
As the Washington Post
’s Jackson Diehl wrote of Obama’s
treatment of Netanyahu at the time – refusing to allow non-official
photographers to record the meeting, and issuing no statement afterward – Obama
treated Netanyahu “as if he were an unsavory third-world dictator, needed for
strategic reasons, but conspicuously held at arms length.”
And then there
was “The Lecture” – the last meeting at the White House in May 2011, where
Netanyahu turned the professorial tables on Obama and lectured him about why
exactly it was impossible for Israel to return to the “indefensible” pre-June 5,
1967 lines, which Obama had called for the day before, albeit, with
mutually-agreed land swaps.
And now the upcoming parley between the two,
the ninth since May 2009, and likely the last before the US elections in
November. How will that be remembered? Chances are good that this meeting will
be remembered as “The Concord.” For even though there are differences between
Israel and the US over the best policy to take toward Iran, and even though the
two men have not developed chemistry or an abiding personal friendship over the
last three years, they both have an interest in radiating unity, harmony and
concord after their head-to-head talks.
For Obama it is a simple question
of electoral mathematics.
Eight months before the November elections, he
will do everything he can to show his support and friendship for Israel. He will
articulate it at length during his Sunday speech to the AIPAC annual policy
conference, and he will follow-up with signaling friendship and support for
Israel at the press opportunity following his meeting with
Despite polls now bouncing his way as a result of an uptick in
the US economy, Obama needs Jewish voters and donors come November. In 2010 he
captured 78 percent of the Jewish vote, but this time the polls are showing
discontent among a good number of Jews.
A Pew Research Poll on trends in
party identification by religion from last month showed that Jews supporting or
leaning Republican, jumped from 20% in 2008, to 29% in 2011, while those
supporting or leaning Democratic fell from 72% in 2008, to 65% in 2011. That is
troubling news for the Obama campaign.
In key battleground states like
Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Nevada – where there are significant Jewish
populations – the shift by just a couple percentage points of the Jewish vote
from Obama to his Republican opponent could make a huge difference in a close
And not only among voters. Jews are major contributors to the
Democratic Party, and the Obama campaign wants to ensure that steady flow of
funds continues. On Monday, according to Politico, Obama held a “Jewish
constituency focused” fundraiser in Washington that included Obama and Jewish
According to the report, 25 supporters paid $35,800 to attend.
That adds up to $825,000.
One need not go too far out on a limb to assume
that for some of those 25 supporters – and hundreds of other Jewish financial
contributors, the Obama campaign is eyeing – Israel is an important
Obama and his staff know very well that despite Obama campaign
clips showing Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak saying what a good
friend of Israel he is, and despite the oft repeated mantra – both in the US and
Israel – that the Israeli- US security relationship has never been better, many
American-Jewish voters still suspect Obama, and think that his heart is “not in
the right place” when it comes to Israel.
Netanyahu’s visit, and the
AIPAC appearance, gives him a prized opportunity to demonstrate the
Netanyahu also has an interest in a harmonious visit for
political reasons. The night before Netanyahu went to the AIPAC conference last
time, in May 2011, Obama gave a speech outlining his vision of the Mideast and
talked about a return to the 1967 lines, with mutually-agreed swaps. Even before
he got on the airplane, Netanyahu issued an extremely harsh response, signaling
that he was interested in tangling publicly with the president. The next day
they met and, afterward, Netanyahu delivered “The Lecture,” as cameras
That visit came just days after hundreds of Palestinians rushed
the country’s northern borders on “Nakaba Day,” and Netanyahu calculated there
would be huge public support for saying clearly to Obama that Israel could not
return to the 1967 lines.
Netanyahu’s comments were crafted carefully to
align with the vulnerability felt by many in the country after the border
And he calculated correctly. A Haaretz poll shortly after the
visit showed that his popularity skyrocketed after that Washington
Now, however, Netanyahu’s political calculations are a bit
A Geocartography poll last week showed that if elections were
held today, Likud would win 39 seats.
Netanyahu is going to Washington in
a strong political position: his coalition is solid, and it seems safe to assume
there will be elections before the end of 2013 only if he wants them.
if Netanyahu does decide to call new elections before the end of his term – many
are discussing the possibility that he might like to see them before the end of
the year – he is vulnerable is to criticism that he caused a rift with the US;
that Jerusalem’s relations with Washington are at their lowest ebb in years; and
that the intimacy Israel enjoyed with the Oval Office during the Bush and
Clinton years faded away under his watch.
A good, friendly, warm meeting
with Obama on Monday can be used by Netanyahu to dispel those charges.
Obviously, Obama is not the only one with electoral considerations; Netanyahu
has them as well.
For the last few weeks, the issue that seemed to
threaten to derail the harmony was not the Palestinian diplomatic track, or the
settlements – as has been the case in the past – but Iran. Media outlets in both
countries reported a great deal of daylight between the sides over how to
approach Iran. These reports were fueled by public comments made by Gen. Martin
Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said it would not be
“prudent” now to attack Iran, and who characterized Iran as a “rational”
While the US and Israel share the same goal – that Iran should not
gain nuclear weapons – and are in pretty close agreement as to how far the
Iranians are in their progress toward achieving nuclear capability, their
disagreement centers around that point when sanctions need to be ditched and
military action taken.
The Israeli position is that military action
should be taken before Iran has all the technological capabilities needed to
assemble a bomb, while the American position is that a strike is needed only
after the political decision in Tehran is made to put together a nuclear
And that is a fundamental difference, because Iran could have all
the bomb-making capabilities – even begin fortifying their installations to make
them invulnerable to attack – and yet only decide to actually assemble a device
years down the road.
It is this difference that has very much been in the
air over the last few weeks, as US and Israeli officials traveled back and
forth to each others’ capitals. And it is a difference that threatens to cast a
shadow over the upcoming meeting.
Yet, an important indication of how the
sides are keen on dismantling potential land mines on the road to successful
Obama- Netanyahu talks Monday came already on Wednesday.
the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton
inched toward Israel’s position saying, “It’s absolutely clear that the
president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear-weapons
With these words she clearly set the US “red line” way
before Iran actually makes a decision to assemble a bomb.
And Dempsey, in
testimony the same day before the House Budget Committee, said regarding Iran
that, “There’s no group in America more determined to prevent Iran from
achieving a nuclear weapon than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I assure you of
Is it coincidence that these statements were made just prior to
the Obama-Netanyahu meeting? Probably not. Rather, it is a sign that the public
parts of this meeting will be harmonious.
What happens in private,
however, is a different question altogether.