Netanyahu versus Obama: Who will win?

The spectacular battle of speeches between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama is unprecedented among “allies.”

US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The spectacular battle of speeches between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama is unprecedented among “allies.”
The PM is aware of the repercussions but he’s taking no prisoners. He is fighting for every hilltop and every outpost and mortgaging our most valuable asset in return for highly dubious merchandise.
Netanyahu has earned full credit for his war against Obama. He looked the president straight in the eye and didn’t bat an eyelid. Netanyahu is fighting a duel with the strongest man in the world, right in front of the rest of the world and he refuses to so much as take him into account.
During all the years that Israel has shared a unique relationship with the United States of America, nothing remotely similar to this has ever happened before.
“How I learned to overcome my fear and love Arik Sharon” (1997) was the title of a movie (by Avi Mograbi). Netanyahu’s corresponding movie is titled: “How I stopped being afraid and learned to detest Obama.” Forget the “detest,” Netanyahu is waging jihad on Obama.
On a personal level, he deserves a citation for courage. The question is, however, whether besides courage there exists in this process a smidgen of wisdom. Whether he deserves any national credit, remains to be seen. In the meantime, the movie Netanyahu is directing before all our eyes is becoming increasingly mesmerizing as it rolls toward its end.
It remains unknown whether the story has a good or not such a good ending. In 1972, when asked if the French Revolution had been a success, Chinese premier Chou En-lai replied, “It’s too early to say.”
History makes its own rules. In the meantime, this head-on confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu is one of the most spectacular and fascinating ever seen between two “allies.” Netanyahu, as President Reuven Rivlin said in a recent interview (with me), is fighting Obama as an equal. Rivlin is concerned.
We should all be concerned. In this bloody game we would have been better off as spectators, enjoying the game and then going home. The problem is that we are not spectators. We are Bibi’s team, the people who are dragged after him, their leader, and whose fate will depend on the results of the battle.
Netanyahu’s gamble is huge. He is going for the grand prize, in full knowledge that he doesn’t stand a chance of getting it. He doesn’t consider the repercussions, and he ignores the dangers. The complete reverse of the how we have come to know him. The caution, hesitation and aversion to overly sharp moves so typical of the Netanyahu we know have vanished when it comes to Obama and the Iranian nuclear bomb. It’s like he’s in a trance. Is it good? Bad? Too early to say. It is definitely frightening. Very.
The consensus is that Netanyahu is completely authentic in this struggle and fired with a genuine sense of mission. Thus is not without basis. But other elements are involved; politics, too. Netanyahu knows that his actions unite the nation around him. He has managed to turn Obama into a punching bag as well as a political asset. He has managed to overturn the long-standing equation according to which the Israeli public will never forgive a leader who harms our relations with the US. He is convinced that most of the public doesn’t have a clue as to the real details, but there is a primeval fear of the words “Iran Nuclear Bomb.”
Netanyahu fans that fear. Sends the devils dancing around us and places himself in the role of the last knight, on a white horse, that he alone created (almost singlehanded), in defense of the Jewish nation.
The other day, Obama was right in saying that his administration has contributed more than any other before his to Israel’s security. In the Israeli security establishment, a significant number of people believe that Netanyahu is misguided in this war that he is waging to the last moment, that it’s a lost cause, that it’s time to face the new reality and to try to glean as much advantage as possible from the new situation.
Obama’s administration is very eager to compensate us, but Netanyahu is not listening. He’s sure they’ll compensate us later, too. But it’s not a sure thing. And quite a few experts believe that the details released by Obama about the nuclear agreement are true and that it’s actually a lesser evil.
Another problem is that Netanyahu was did not enter this confrontation with clean hands. Let’s not forget that not so long ago, in the 2012 presidential campaign, Netanyahu acted, directly and indirectly, on behalf of Obama’s Republican adversary, Mitt Romney. This, too, was unprecedented: an Israeli prime minister trying to oust an incumbent US president. Then too, Netanyahu was fired with a sense of fate and historic mission.
His trusted political adviser, the US-born Ron Dermer, who was seen as an expert on all things American, told Netanyahu that “Obama will be a one-term president.”
According to Dermer all it took was one little push and the president would lose the election and turn into a black Jimmy Carter.
Bibi bought this. Adelson financed it.
The only thing that didn’t join it was reality.
Obama defeated the troika’s candidate, Mitt Romney, by a huge margin.
Was there a lesson to be learned? No.
Nowadays, Dermer is Israel’s ambassador in Las Vegas (we currently have no ambassador to Washington) and tells Netanyahu that “we can win in Congress. It can be done.”
And Netanyahu keeps buying it. Even though the price is much higher than last time. Even though the significance of an Israeli victory in Congress can be infinitely more lethal and negative than a failure.
Netanyahu is waging a heroic, scorched earth battle. And he is taking no prisoners.
He is fighting for every hillock and stronghold. Even though he is well familiar with the intensity of Israel’s dependence on the US, fully aware of the state of Israel’s military stockpiles, understands that if he embarks on a high-trajectory conflict with Hezbollah or Hamas, within a week he’ll be gasping for aid and ammunition ships and that there is no certainly he’ll get it (remember the Hellfire missiles snafu during Protective Edge).
Netanyahu is jeopardizing Israel’s most important asset (the special relations with the US) in return for an obscure, messianic, unclear objective. At a time when Obama and Netanyahu are facing down each other in speeches, three more important Democratic senators have announced their support for the nuclear agreement.
The chances have almost run out, but Bibi isn’t letting go.
The war of the speeches between Netanyahu and Obama has no precedent. In the past, this kind of business was always laundered in private, behind closed doors. Now, suddenly, everything is on prime time. Bibi went first by delivering an Internet speech that addressed thousands of Jewish activists throughout the US. Netanyahu spoke out of deep conviction and his speech was, as usual, good. At the same time, the president met about 20 Jewish leaders in the White House, but he delivered his winning response to Netanyahu half a day later. This response has been resonating ever since and will continue to do so for some time.
Obama arrived at Washington’s American University, the place where, 50 years before, John F. Kennedy delivered a definitive speech on the importance of diplomacy in solving the Cuban missile crisis. At the very beginning of his speech, Obama was already up on his high horse, but as he went on he gave a rare and highly impressive, persuasive, often brutal show that included numerous barbs and jibes at Netanyahu, as well as several caresses. One by one, Obama analyzed Netanyahu’s arguments and smashed them into tiny pieces. He cut Netanyahu no slack, neither for his dramatic declarations against the interim agreement with Iran, nor for the rest of his alarmist warnings that nobody else in the world takes seriously.
The power of the president’s arguments lies in the fact that he didn’t try to present the agreement with Iran as ideal. He recognized its weak points, but he stressed and explained that there is no alternative and that this agreement is the best and only available option. For the umpteenth time Obama emphasized that he would not permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and that this position would be held by every subsequent American president.
Both Obama and Netanyahu reiterated that their differences were not personal.
Neither of them was telling the truth. The personal resentment between the two men reaches new heights with each passing day. It emerged for a split second, almost inadvertently, when Obama actually mimicked Netanyahu’s argument in that same familiar baritone voice. Suddenly, a parody slipped out that could have come straight out of an Israeli TV satire show. “It’s a bad agreement. We need a better agreement,” said Obama in Bibi’s voice. And the audience cracked up. The trouble is that this joke was at our expense. For a split second this strange little moment illustrated the intensity of the animosity between the two men.
In Netanyahu’s vicinity, by the way, Obama is spoken of with much greater disdain, and much use is made of his middle name, Hussein. So they travel, those two, like two engines on a single rail track, each in the opposite direction. No need to wait for a collision, it’s already happened. We are in the middle of it. A big engine against a small engine convinced that he is the larger one. No good can come of it. Even if we win, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
Translated by Ora Cummings.