When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Monday, it will be their 16th meeting. That’s a lot of face-time for leaders coming from vastly different ideological positions, who see the world through fundamentally different glasses, and who famously – and publicly – disagree about a lot: from the Palestinians, to the Arab Spring, to Iran.
Sixteen meetings on, however, and there is something that feels – in the run-up to Monday’s sit-down – like the very first time.
Now, as was the case in May 2009, when the two men first met as the leaders of their respective countries, there was much written and said about their differences. Obama the liberal, Netanyahu the conservative; Obama the dove, Netanyahu the hawk. Surely sparks would fly at that meeting, some speculated. Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign, said that not adopting an “unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel” did not make one anti-Israel. And there he was, just a few months into office, meeting an “unwavering” Likud prime minister.
But many others argued that surely the two men would realize that they needed each other, that they must work together. Surely they would find a way to bridge their ideological gaps and get along – it was in the interests of both their lands. Surely, at least, they would radiate warmth and harmony before the cameras.
But it wasn’t to be. The caustic tone that has marked much of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship was set back then when the US president surprised Netanyahu in front of the cameras with a demand for a total settlement freeze, including in Jerusalem, and when he created linkage between the Iranian and Palestinian issues. It was as unexpected as it was unprecedented, and it set the relationship off on the wrong foot.
Now, as then, there are those saying that following their titanic clash over the Iran deal, the two men – meeting for the first time in over a year – will surely want to show that bygones are bygones, and send a message to their constituencies and the world that they want to bury the hatchet and work together.
This will most likely be Netanyahu’s approach to the meeting. He signaled this already in picking the venues for his public appearances in Washington.
Besides meeting with Obama, he will address the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, and the conservative American Enterprise Institute. No surprises there.
But he will also speak at the Center for American Progress, one of the most clearly identifiable progressive think tanks in Washington.
After addressing Congress in March at the invitation of then-speaker of the house John Boehner, over the loud and angry objections of Obama and Democratic congressional leaders, he is clearly trying to mend fences, to show that Israel is not a partisan issue. What better way of choreographing that message than to speak at a liberal think tank.
But things don’t always go as planned.
Back in May 2009 Netanyahu went to Washington hoping to get the relationship off on the right track with a president with whom he had deep ideological differences. Obama, however, had a different agenda.
Concerned about America’s standing in the Arab world following eight years of George W. Bush – years that saw America go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq – Obama was intent on showing daylight between Washington and Jerusalem, in order to bring the US closer to the Arab and Islamic world.
It didn’t work. This policy of creating space between the US and Israel to close gaps between the US and the Arab world succeeded, indeed, in placing space between Washington and Jerusalem, but without moving the Arab world closer to Washington.
More than six years down the line, the Arab world is more skeptical and wary of the US, its polices and commitments, than it was back then. Obama is not going to be able to assure the Saudis, or the Emirates, or the Egyptians, of American commitment by publicly blindsiding Netanyahu. What they want to see now, no less than Israel, is a firewall against Iran.
Which is why this time the president is unlikely to pull out any surprises – like the settlement freeze demand – when he meets Netanyahu in front of the cameras. And Netanyahu realizes well that with all his railing and fury at the Iran agreement, it’s a done deal – at least until January 2017 and a new president comes into office. The need now is to figure out how to work together to scrupulously make sure the deal is implemented.
When all is said and done, what the deal does, essentially, is kick the Iran nuclear issue down the road for 15 years. If implemented, it will cap and roll back somewhat the Iranian program for the next decade and a half.
What Obama and Netanyahu will need to focus on now is how to use the next 15 years to ensure that Iran does not break out to a bomb.
This means the two countries will need to coordinate to ensure and monitor implementation, something that is in the best interests of both nations.
There needs to be an understanding between Jerusalem and Washington about what constitutes an Iranian violation, and what the proper response to such a violation should look like.
Israel and the US need to coordinate on monitoring, on sharing intelligence to get a clear picture of exactly what the Iranians are – and are not – doing.
And finally, there needs to be discussion about how to deter the Iranians, to deter them both from breaking the accord as well as – flush with all the cash that will come their way from sanctions relief – moving ahead to destabilize the region. And this is where the so-called compensation package to Israel in the form of an enhanced Memorandum of Understanding spelling out defense aid to Israel over the next 10 years comes into play.
Despite widespread perception to the contrary, this enhanced military support to Israel is not a “consolation prize” to Jerusalem following the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. What it is, rather, is an effort to build up deterrence to Iran, so that the Iranians will know that if they either try to dash to a nuclear finish line, or if they continue efforts to destabilize the region, then Israel will have the wherewithal to deter them.
This deterrence, by the way, is not only on Israel’s shoulders, and it is for this reason that the US is also trying to build an enhanced deterrence capability with the Persian Gulf states.
So on paper, in theory, there is every reason to believe that this visit will be hiccup-free – because both sides want it to be, because both Obama and Netanyahu realize the importance of showing the Iranians, and the region, that they are now on the same page.
But that was also the assumption many had before that first meeting more than six years ago, and it was not to be.
Watch Obama. Not his body language, carefully (and ridiculously) scrutinized from every angle whenever he meets Netanyahu, but rather watch what he says to the press when they meet. That brief statement – whether it comes before or after the meeting – will, as it did following their first meeting, go a long way toward setting the tone for the next year, the final year of that topsy-turvy period in Israeli-US ties that has come to be known by some as the Obibi Era.