Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama are meeting today. It’s no secret that the two dislike each other, and that there is a deep mistrust between the men. This meeting is unlikely to make things better. But where to start?
Could Bibi feel blindsided by the president’s decision to highlight Arab-Israeli peace as one of his two most important foreign policy priorities in his UNGA speech last week? Possibly. After all, the American people were told we were re-balancing to Asia. But never mind that; Obama’s rapidly shifting priorities should come as no surprise to anyone. Then there was the decision to stay out of Syria and huddle under the warmth of Russia’s global leadership. But again, the Israelis must be well aware that Obama was looking for any reason to escape embroiling the United States in the Syrian civil war. And the Israelis too have been ambivalent about the wisdom of bidding farewell to Bashar al Assad.
Likely it will be over Barack Obama’s rather shameful canoodling with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last week that the Israeli and American leaders part ways. I doubt the Israelis are too horrified by the idea of talks with Iran. God knows we’ve been down that road before umpteen times. It’s more likely that they are terribly afraid – along with much of the Arab world – that Barack Obama will sell them and their national security interests down the river. In the bazaar that is the Middle East, Barack Obama is the middle-aged lady from Dubuque (sorry, Dubuque). He has a smile on his face; he cannot believe he is being served free tea; he is delighted by the quaintness of foreign traditions. And the prices!
Let’s face it: we’ve been fortunate with the dramatis personae of our Middle Eastern adversaries. They have all looked and acted, more or less, like what they are — arrogant kings, fanatical extremists, and ruthless dictators. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the poster child for bad PR. But now he’s gone and suddenly the world’s premier state sponsor of terrorism, nuclear weapons wannabe, missile proliferator, human rights violator, and regional aggressor appears to be…approachable. Reasonable. Likeable. The new Iranian president, his foreign minister, and their ardent American advisers are savvier, smoother, and smarter than before. They get Barack Obama, and they know what he wants to hear.
More importantly, they have a very good sense of what they need to give — and what they don’t — in order to take in a president that is by all accounts desperate for even the most skimpy of fig leaves to declare victory and continue America’s retreat from the world. Will Iran give up its nuclear weapons program? Why should they? Obama’s not going to make them. Will they give just enough to buy some sanctions relief in order to continue their program in comfort? Could well be. It’s happened many times before, including when Rouhani himself was nuclear negotiator.
And so, today the president has the unenviable task of persuading the Israeli prime minister that he is not the sucker he appears to be. It’s going to be an uphill climb.