Israel's coming test for Obama
He must be alert to bullying by Israel's likely next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Netanyahu's mastery of television is brilliant, though his performances sometimes border on demagogic. He is a gifted speaker and a talented politician, and he has been interested in an American peace agenda only to the extent it coincides with his own vision of the region. And therein lie the seeds of his possible confrontation with Obama.Skip to next paragraph
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The flash points of the relationship are well-known. Israel demands elimination of the perceived Iranian threat. If the Israelis were to unilaterally bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, but were only partially successful, the Israelis might force a reluctant Obama to finish the job, thus involving the United States in yet another military engagement in the region at least as serious as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would not be the first time right-wing Israelis maneuvered an American president into a war of dubious purpose.
A new US-sponsored peace initiative for the Palestinians, calling on Israel to pull back to pre-1967 borders in exchange for comprehensive peace with all Arabs, would not play well with Netanyahu's hawkish secular constituency, let alone already emboldened religious settlers in the West Bank.
Obama and Netanyahu took the measure of each other when they met this past summer. Israelis tend to greatly prize machismo and swagger, and Bibi's demeanor is well honed.
He has years of experience in the Knesset, where verbal bludgeoning, bravado, and bullying are standard fare. Bibi might be tempted to try to overpower the freshman American president as Khrushchev did to Kennedy, but that would be ill-advised.
Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, like Netanyahu, has a reputation as a brawler and would not allow his boss to be buffaloed by Bibi. In 1996, when Mr. Emanuel worked for President Clinton, he toughly faced down Bibi in an earlier negotiating confrontation.
Netanyahu's recent promise to the European Union to continue a peace process with the Palestinians is encouraging. But it is unclear how serious he is. That pledge may only be aimed at assuaging European fears over the rise of an extremely militant faction of the Likud Party, dragging the party further to the right. Bibi's commitment to peace with the Palestinians has long been halting and contradictory.
Persuading Netanyahu to follow a new American president's fresh leadership in the Middle East will not be easy if for no other reason than that Jerusalem and Washington's interests simply do not run on parallel tracks.
During the Clinton years, Netanyahu was urged to take serious risks to secure peace. He rebuffed that pressure, once reportedly expressing fears of being assassinated, as was the peace-promoting Mr. Rabin. Bibi is now the battle-hardened veteran of other failed peace negotiations.
Compared with Obama, Netanyahu surely fancies himself a senior statesman and a realist. But so far during Israel's election campaign, he seems primarily occupied with trying to "occupy the center" rather than offering any fresh vision. Again, he is deferring any constructive policy for a Middle East settlement to someone else.