Sunny, with clouds on horizon for PM, Obama

Diplomacy: With electoral considerations, it’s shaping up to be the warmest meeting yet – at least in public.

By
March 1, 2012 22:32
Netanyahu and Obama.

Netanyahuo Obama chilly awkward 390. (photo credit: Jim Young/ Reuters)

 
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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.

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There 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 Biden’s visit.

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 Netanyahu.

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 election.

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 leaders.

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 issue.

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 opposite.

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 whirled.

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 incidents.

And he calculated correctly. A Haaretz poll shortly after the visit showed that his popularity skyrocketed after that Washington trip.

Now, however, Netanyahu’s political calculations are a bit different.

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.

And 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” actor.

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 device.

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.

Speaking before 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 capability.”

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 that.”

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.

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