Analysis: The Obibi effect

Can Netanyahu's thorny ties with Clinton predict his relations with Obama?

obama netanyahu 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama netanyahu 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
By July 1998, two years after Binyamin Netanyahu had been elected prime minister, the impression that he and US president Bill Clinton were at loggerheads was so widespread that PBS's Jim Lehrer asked Clinton the following question: "The word around... is that you and Netanyahu really just don't like each other very much. Is that right?" Clinton's response was telling. "I don't think so. It's certainly not true on my part. But we have had differences of opinion on occasion in approach to the peace process. And then there - you know - there's been a little smattering in the press here, there, and yonder about those differences and whether they were personal in nature. But for me they're not personal in nature. "I enjoy him very much, I like being with him, I like working with him," Clinton added. "I really believe that he is an energetic man, and I think that within the limits of his political situation, I believe he's hoping to be able to make a peace and to get to the point where he and Mr. Arafat can negotiate that." That exchange is important now that the so-called Obibi effect - the degree to which Netanyahu may or may not be able to deal with US President Barack Obama - is coming into play in the Israeli election campaign. According to press reports, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has used quotes from former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross's book The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace to demonstrate how poor the Clinton-Netanyahu relationship was, and how it is likely to be just as bad with Obama and could even lead to a rupture in the all-important US-Israel relationship. But were the Clinton-Netanyahu years really all that awful? Granted, the ties during the Netanyahu-Clinton years were nothing like the close relationship that existed between Clinton and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, nor those that existed between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. Those relationships were marked by an unusual degree of personal chemistry that, according to the conventional wisdom, definitely did not characterize the Clinton-Netanyahu years. In fact, there were a couple of serious missteps that worked against the development of a good working chemistry between the two - and the first misstep could be attributed to Clinton. In the 1996 Israeli elections, following the assassination of Rabin the previous November, the Clinton administration did everything it could to bring about the election of Netanyahu's opponent - Shimon Peres. As Ross wrote in his book, "On the eve of the mandated 30-day campaign period [in 1996], Peres visited Washington and we all but endorsed him, with the president lavishing praise on him and pledging additional American assistance. Clinton, a hero in Israel since the Rabin funeral, sought to transfer his own credibility to Peres, and in so doing 'save' Labor and the peace process." One major problem with this approach at meddling was that it didn't work. Clinton intervened, but Netanyahu still won, and the end result was that from that point on, Clinton was facing an Israeli prime minister who knew the US president had actively tried to keep him out of office. That's not much of a chemistry enhancer. But obviously the lack of chemistry was a two-way street, with Netanyahu exacerbating matters by publicly playing with Clinton's political opponents, much to the then-president's chagrin. When Netanyahu flew to Washington in January 1998 for key talks with Clinton on the diplomatic process, the first thing he did was go to a rally of conservative supporters of Israel, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell. At the time, Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, was considered a dogged enemy of Clinton, but Netanyahu added a meeting with him after he met another of the president's arch-opponents: then-House speaker Newt Gingrich. He also met with key conservative senators and prominent members of the Christian Right. Clinton's top aides were infuriated by those meetings, and - obviously - it led to tension in the relationship. Still, in his memoir, Clinton said he'd had a comfortable working relationship with Netanyahu and characterized him as "gracious" and "very statesmanlike." Even with these bumps and tensions, it did not mean Israeli-US cooperation ended, and - indeed - Netanyahu, against his ideological instincts, did sign the US-brokered Hebron and later Wye River Accords with the Palestinian Authority. And as difficult as the relationship was at times, it was nothing like the icy relationship that existed between former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and US president George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, in the second half of their term. But since times change, personalities change, and situations change, it seems a bit simplistic to argue that because Clinton and Netanyahu did not have the same type of relationship as Clinton and Rabin, Obama and Netanyahu won't be able to develop a good working relationship. If Obama doesn't overtly push one candidate in the upcoming elections, and Netanyahu doesn't go out and publicly court Obama's political enemies, there is no reason to think the two can't get along at least as well as Obama and Livni. Indeed, there is nothing to guarantee that Livni would have a better relationship with Obama than Netanyahu. The opening gambit of Obama's Middle East policy, his selection of George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy and his decision to dispatch him here even before the Israeli elections, demonstrates that Obama is set on wading knee-deep into the Middle East process right off the bat. And the conventional wisdom is that he will wade in holding firm to a belief in a two-state solution that will necessitate massive Israeli concessions, as well as a Syrian-Israeli agreement that would necessitate an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But in Israel circa January 2009, that policy - at a time when many here don't believe previous withdrawals have been a resounding success - is going to run up against a degree of push-back regardless of who is in the prime minister's chair, Livni or Netanyahu. It is not necessarily the personality of the prime minister that will cause the friction, but rather US and Israeli interests and policies that may be entering a new era where they will increasingly be out of sync.