Jeffrey Goldberg’s report on what Barack Obama had to say about Bibi Netanyahu has caused quite a fuss. It may or may not be totally accurate, but there have been no denials, and in any case, it doesn’t tell us a lot that we don’t already know. Now might be a good time to review the major factors that govern the relationship between the two men.
PRINCIPLE ONE: Obama and Netanyahu do not like each other very much, and even worse, they don’t trust each other. This bad blood goes back a long way—and predates the apparent intervention of Netanyahu in the American election in favor of Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney.
PRINCIPLE TWO: Following the election next week, it is Netanyahu’s job to rebuild a personal relationship with the President. It makes no difference, by the way, who is primarily at fault for the tension between the two leaders (and there is enough blame to go around). The fact is that Israel is a small and vulnerable country that is dependent on America’s support for its very existence. Netanyahu therefore must do what every other Israeli Prime Minister has done, whether he likes it or not: He must find a way to make a personal connection and build a bridge to the President of the United States.
PRINCIPLE THREE: Obama will remain committed to Israel because he is a strategic thinker, and he sees Israel as a strategic asset of America. The President, to be sure, views foreign policy with a moral eye as well, although he rejects the heavy-handed moralism of his predecessor. But his starting point is a careful calculation of American interests, and a strong Israel—as he well knows and as he and members of his Administration have made abundantly clear—is a strategic interest of the United States.
PRINCIPLE FOUR: The President will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, no matter how much he may dislike Israel’s Prime Minister. The reason for this is that thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions is not simply a favor for Israel, although Israel will clearly benefit. A nuclear Iran creates a strategic threat to America (see #3 above) by fundamentally destabilizing an already fragile region of vital importance to America and the industrialized west. Netanyahu, of course, has repeatedly made the point that an Iran with nuclear weapons is a danger to the world and not only to Israel; he is right, and Obama knows that.
PRINCIPLE FIVE: Obama sees the Palestinian problem through a strategic lens (again, see #3 above). He believes that American interests are served by creating ties to Morsi’s Egypt, even as he acknowledges that Morsi’s path is as yet unclear; and he hopes for improved relations with Turkey as well. Israel’s commitment to settlement building—which Obama sees as obsessive and unnecessary—is an obstacle to both goals. The same desire to enhance stability in an unstable area, which accounts for his concern with Iran, also accounts for his dismay at the disruption that settlements cause throughout the region. But then again, the President is truly confounded by a settlement policy that in his eyes just makes no sense. Like the Europeans, he does not understand why the Israelis would build in areas from which they will ultimately have to withdraw, unless they have given up on a two-state solution; and if that is the case, how will Israel remain both Jewish and democratic? (This is a question, of course, that Netanyahu has yet to answer.)
Does all of this constitute a grave crisis? What it constitutes is a difficult and complicated situation. And it means that after next week’s election, when it comes to Israel’s tense relations with America, Bibi Netanyahu will have a lot to do.