How Bibi Lost to Obama

Even by the frenzied standards of Israeli politics, the recent meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama was unusual. Days after the confrontation between a popular, resoundingly victorious agent of change (Obama) and a neoconservative in his second stint as prime minister (Netanyahu), the Israeli media and chattering classes were still arguing over who had come out ahead.

Given the buildup and the fact that this was a first meeting, all Netanyahu needed to achieve was a degree of personal trust, leaving whatever differences there were for later meetings. "I can definitely work with this guy" is what Netanyahu wanted Obama to tell his staff after the meeting. Based on reports from Washington, it is unclear whether this objective was accomplished. The reason is that by pushing too hard on Iran, Netanyahu may have set himself up for failure.

In an asymmetrical relationship such as the one that exists between the U.S. and Israel, the lesser power needs to play ball and make the adjustments on issues that are not of vital national-security importance. Instead, at Netanyahu's insistence, the meeting was all about "the linkage," which now may prove to be highly contentious down the road. The linkage, of course, is the one between efforts to disrupt Iran's nuclear efforts and to promote the Israeli-Palestinian political process.

Currently, Israel wants the two issues delinked and claims that they each merit a distinct policy formulation. But in the weeks preceding Netanyahu's visit to the White House, Israel presented a linkage of its own. Hamas-controlled Gaza is an Iranian forward outpost, both militarily and ideologically. Now there is an ominous possibility that Hamas will take over the West Bank too, helping to create another Iranian launchpad for further destabilization. Iran has a vested interest in preventing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Therefore, until Iran is curtailed and its nuclear program halted, no real progress can be made on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

President Obama reversed the linkage. He and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it unequivocally clear that an effective Iran policy is contingent on tangible signs of progress in the peace process, specifically a freeze on settlement building. If Israel wants a coherent, collaborative policy designed to prevent Iran from attaining a military nuclear capability, the Americans suggested, a regional coalition must be forged and be supported by Russia and the European Union. Such a coalition, composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states, needs to see a real commitment from Obama on the peace process. From Obama's perspective, this is what multilateralism is all about, and such alliances and balances are what political realism is all about. He does not see himself on some romantic or providential mission to achieve peace in the Middle East, but rather as a redefiner, promoter and enforcer of U.S. interests in the region.

Once Obama made the reverse linkage, Israel resorted to a delinking effort. In other words, if the idea was to convince Obama about the linkage, it backfired.

This leads to Iran policy. Netanyahu is sincere and profoundly serious in claiming that the West perilously under-estimates the Iranian threat. Netanyahu draws an imperfect but nonetheless valid analogy between how Western powers dismissed Hitler's Germany in 1938–39 and how they belittle the consequences of a nuclear Iran today. This is the "gathering storm," as he quotes Winston Churchill. The rise of Islamic extremism, coupled with Shiite hegemonic aspirations and equipped with deliverable nuclear weapons, is a disastrous development.

Herein may lie the problem. Israel has been exuding hysteria (even if justified) about Iran both domestically and internationally. By making Iran the defining issue of our time and of his term as prime minister, Netanyahu also exposes a vulnerability. The shaping of a U.S.-led Iran policy could be used as a lever to extract from Israel policy concessions that Netanyahu is uncomfortable with. For example, the two-state solution. Netanyahu's reluctance to endorse it at this point is rooted in the eminent failure of 15 years' worth of futile negotiations that produced disillusionment and aggravated distrust on both sides. But President Obama and his predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, believe in it. So do a majority of Israelis, provided the required provisions are implemented.

Obama and Netanyahu share some critical qualities. They defy their predecessors' policies and profess to think outside the box and to seek unorthodox solutions to colossal challenges. If that really is the case, then Netanyahu should have bonded with Obama on Iran and a broad regional peace plan while calibrating his Palestinian peace-process policies with those of the new administration. A freeze on settlement building and a commitment to the idea of a stable, demilitarized and politically transparent Palestinian state in exchange for closer cooperation on Iran would be a small price to pay for sharing a "think big" policy with the U.S. Obama and Netanyahu are still more likely to become partners than adversaries, but that will require a better second meeting.