President-elect Barack Obama could be surprised to discover that the first foreign policy challenge he faces may not come from traditional adversaries, such as Iran or Russia, but from a perceived friend, Israel.
If the Likud candidate for prime minister, Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, wins February elections in Israel – and polls now heavily favor his party – Mr. Obama may find that this ally can be very prickly. Recall Jimmy Carter's difficulties with Menachem Begin and George H.W. Bush's troubles with Yitzhak Shamir. Early in his presidency, George W. Bush apparently decided the best way to get along with Israelis was to unashamedly accommodate Israel, regardless of collateral consequences to US foreign policy.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has already served a term as Israel's prime minister, has a history of political confrontation. He may decide to challenge Obama early on, as he did with Bill Clinton. Domestically, it would be easy because during the election, many Israelis viewed Obama skeptically, and still do. Some whispered that he was pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab.
Netanyahu became famous for his early opposition to the US-backed peace platform of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres. He was elected in 1996 after a series of suicide attacks that killed scores of innocent Israelis.
On election night, when results came in, Netanyahu's Likud partisans were celebrating victory amid cheers of "we beat them, we beat them, we beat Labor." Netanyahu reportedly put a different spin on the celebratory chants, reminding his supporters that the more significant victory was the one over Washington's ability to dictate the terms of Middle East peace.
Educated in America, Bibi's fluency in English – married to his earlier hard-line anti-Palestinian rhetoric – made him the darling of right-leaning American Jews, as well as some Evangelical Christians. The latter looked at him and concluded he was one of them.
Actually, Bibi has shown he's a super-Israeli nationalist and has not demonstrated any great fondness for America except as it accommodates his interest in "Greater Israel." His policy previously and now seems to be maintenance of the status quo, thus avoiding any difficult decisions requiring him to cede land to Palestinians.
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.
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.