As I write this, PM Netanyahu is in Washington, preparing for his scheduled meeting with President Obama today. The Washington Post reports that
The leaders plan to discuss how to counter Iranian aid to Hezbollah and Hamas; the Russian and Iranian efforts to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and steps that might demonstrate Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution even in the absence of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
The most tangible piece of the agenda, however, is a 10-year memorandum of understanding on military cooperation between the two countries that would budget aid and lock in a plan for new weaponry to deal with what the administration agrees is a “dangerous neighborhood.”
Most media sources also say that the PM and president want to improve their reportedly poor personal relationship.
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect this meeting to go well – and I don’t think it will be because of the personal chemistry or lack thereof between the two. Rather, there are real differences in worldview and perception of national interest between Netanyahu and Obama and his team. The administration’s position is much closer to that of the Europeans than previous administrations, or indeed to that of most Americans or members of the US Congress.
Obama accepts much of the Palestinian narrative, in which they are an oppressed people and by which their violent behavior is caused by their oppression and their lack of a ‘horizon’ – a hope that at some point they will obtain a sovereign state. Therefore, on the Palestinian issue he will be expected to push for Netanyahu to make concessions in the form of construction freezes, prisoner releases, and loosening security measures (checkpoints, etc.). Obama may also call for ‘humanitarian’ assistance to Gaza or for weakening the blockade on materials that can be used for military purposes.
Netanyahu (correctly) understands that the ‘horizon’ the Palestinians yearn for is a view from the Jordan to the Mediterranean that is not defiled by the presence of Jews. He understands that concessions are perceived as weakness and will be pocketed and followed by demands for more. He believes that responding to Arab violence calls for tightening, not loosening, security measures. He notes that Hamas continues to dedicate resources to preparations for war and not ameliorating the condition of the population.
Obama is personally sympathetic to Muslim Brotherhood style Islamism, as illustrated by his support of Morsi over al-Sisi in Egypt. He doesn’t seem prepared to invest much in the effort to prevent the establishment of Daesh’s Sunni caliphate. He might even be reconciled to the permanent establishment of such a state, in the hopes that its behavior will someday become more moderate. And of course he seems committed to making an ally of Iran, despite its continued ‘death to America’ hostility. Netanyahu sees threats from all of these, particularly Iran.
Netanyahu realizes that no one will stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons except Israel, and remains committed to the principle that no hostile state in the region – particularly one that has made no bones about wanting to destroy Israel – will be allowed to do so. Obama still considers an Israeli attack on Iran a worse outcome than an Iranian nuclear test.
I expect, therefore, that Obama will not look favorably on Netanyahu’s requests for offensive weapons, particularly those that can be used to attack Iran. I think that he will condition the provision of any weapons on what Netanyahu is willing to do on the Palestinian front. Netanyahu is under heavy pressure to improve the security situation at home and will not want to make significant concessions.
Those are just some of the reasons for the ‘daylight’ between Israel and the Obama Administration. There is also a strong ideological bias on the part of Obama and many of his key advisers – Kerry, Rhodes, Rice, Malley, etc. – toward the Palestinians. This was evidenced during the last Gaza war, when Obama (and Kerry) strongly and unfairly criticized Israel for ‘disproportionate’ civilian casualties, and even cut off deliveries of weapons.
But leaving all this aside, there is independent evidence that the administration does not want the meeting to go well for Israel. On Saturday night, Joe Biden spoke at the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, where he very sharply rebuked PM Netanyahu’s nominee for media adviser, Ron Baratz, for comments he made about Obama and Kerry.
Baratz made these remarks on his personal Facebook page before he was nominated for the position, and the appointment is an internal one and not, for example, an ambassadorship. This is really none of the Americans’ business. One could compare it to the insulting and even scatological remarks made to reporter Jeffrey Goldberg about Netanyahu by an unnamed White House official, but in that case the insults were made to the media and in the performance of the official’s duties.
This is not the first time Biden delivered a message by deliberately overreacting to a perceived ‘insult’. Early in the Obama Administration, he was ‘insulted’ by an announcement of tenders for construction of some homes in an existing Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem. Then the message was that although there was no agreement not to build in Jerusalem, Israel would pay dearly for disobedience to the administration.
Biden also said Saturday night that “both sides need to demonstrate restraint and avoid incitement.” I think the message he delivered (to applause from the administration’s liberal Jewish supporters) had two parts: 1) Netanyahu shouldn’t forget that Obama is the boss and he is the underling, and 2) Israel is responsible for causing the terrorism it experiences and will be expected to take steps to conciliate the Palestinians. Needless to say, neither of these messages will make Netanyahu happy.
Obama has no reason to hide his antipathy for Israel or his sympathy for the Palestinians. He faces no more elections, while he still has more than a year to implement his policies. He’s succeeded in breaking the sanctions regime on Iran without even losing the support of liberal Jews, who apparently accept his protestations that he cares for the security of Israel, regardless of his actions.
My prediction is that Netanyahu will come out of this meeting with much less military aid than he had hoped for, and far more obligations than he would prefer.