One might be forgiven for thinking that Benjamin Netanyahu and Rahm Emanuel hark from parallel universes. Both are the sons of strong-willed, right-wing Israeli fathers. Both have sought to prove their bona fides as defenders of Israel (Netanyahu by serving in an elite commando unit of the Israeli military; Emanuel by rushing off to volunteer for Israel during the first Gulf War). And both men come from intense, competitive broods consisting of three successful brothers—Netanyahu's older brother, Yoni, was a national hero, the slain commander at Entebbe; Emanuel's younger brother, Ari, is a Hollywood superagent who has earned a kind of immortality, American style, as the inspiration for an HBO character. (The other brother of each is, naturally, a doctor.) Emanuel grew up in Chicago but spent summers in Israel. Netanyahu grew up in Israel but spent his teen and college years in the United States. The two men are alike in other ways as well: both can be abrasive and appear arrogant. Both are political infighters who hate losing.
They could almost be siblings. So it's more than a little odd that Emanuel and Netanyahu could instead end up on opposite sides of the bargaining table. Emanuel, as Obama's chief of staff, is not going to be negotiating directly with the Israelis, Iranians or anyone else. But he is emerging as a central player in efforts to press Israel on key issues like Iran's nuclear program and talks with the Palestinians—and to sell those policies to the U.S. Jewish community. "Rahm's got a big role, no question," says a senior administration official who would discuss Emanuel only on condition of anonymity. "He has a huge level of knowledge on the issues, a history with the issues. And he's got the complete trust of the president."
The most serious tensions could arise over Iran. Israel believes that stopping the Iranians from acquiring nuclear-weapons capability is an existential must, and Israeli officials worry that Obama may be too inclined to compromise. Whether that fear is justified or not, the Obama administration believes that the best way to get international leverage over Iran is to make real efforts to achieve a Palestinian state. Netanyahu says he wants to negotiate with the Palestinians, but he won't endorse the idea of an independent state.
Emanuel has a special kind of credibility when it comes to pushing Mideast peace. "It's a Nixon-goes-to-China thing," says Rep. Jane Harman, a senior member of the House Democratic Caucus, where Emanuel served in a leadership position until last fall. "He can be blunt in ways that others can't." William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities and knows Emanuel, calls him "Obama's secret weapon." It's not just that Obama can use Emanuel's Israel-friendly reputation as a kind of shield, allowing him to display "tough love" toward the Jewish state. Daroff told NEWSWEEK Rahm has such a nuanced understanding of Israeli politics, he can easily act as the president's BS detector as negotiations go forward. "The Israelis aren't going to be able to slide anything past the administration because Rahm is who he is." The Hebrew-speaking Emanuel, as much as anyone on the American side, will know if the Israeli prime minister is bluffing about his "red line" on Iran, or what he can really do about halting settlements in the West Bank. (Asked to comment, Emanuel's spokeswoman, Sarah Feinberg, told newsweek that his goal was to ensure that the president has "every option available to him as we pursue peace.")
Emanuel's status as a near-native son gave some Israelis and Jews the impression he would be their guy on the Obama team—the pro-Israeli with the receptive ear. He had those golden Zionist credentials, after all: His father, Benjamin, had been a member of the Irgun, the right-wing Jewish militia that existed before Israeli independence. His Uncle Emanuel had been killed in a skirmish with Arabs back in the '30s, prompting the family to change its name from Auerbach to honor him. But some in the Jewish community have been disappointed. Even his own rabbi, Asher Lopatin, has doubts about his absent congregant. "There is a lot of disappointment," says Lopatin, who presides over the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. "In some ways there was a heightened expectation because Rahm is so connected to Israel and the Jewish community. Instead what we've seen is more of the tough Rahm Emanuel. Not the warm Rahm."
Like Bibi Netanyahu, whose fierce scholarly father raised his sons on the idea of a "greater Israel" that includes not only the West Bank but Jordan too, Emanuel has had to contend with paternal expectations. The elder Emanuel, a doctor in Chicago, embarrassed his son last fall telling an Israeli newspaper that of course his boy would influence Obama to be pro-Israeli. "Why wouldn't he? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to be mopping floors at the White House," he said. Rahm Emanuel had to apologize soon afterward to the Arab-American community. (Benjamin Emanuel did not respond to requests for comment.)
But Emanuel has often proved a pragmatist. Leaks from meetings Emanuel has had with Jewish leaders since January suggest his role is to nudge the Israelis toward a more accommodating stance on the issue of a Palestinian state and negotiations with Iran. Emanuel begins his meetings with Jewish leaders with a warning: if anything leaks, he says, according to several participants in such gatherings, neither he nor anyone else in the White House will ever speak to the leaders again.
Earlier this month, at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Emanuel left a number of delegates feeling uneasy when he pressed for progress on the Palestinian issue. Like Obama last week, he began by touting the "special relationship" between America and Israel and a "rich friendship, rooted in shared values." But according to Emanuel's talking points, which were obtained by NEWSWEEK, he also declared that "this is a moment of truth for the state of Israel and the prospects for peace." Whereas Netanyahu has sought to deemphasize the Palestinian talks and focus on stopping Tehran's nukes, Emanuel said that Obama "believes that our ability to confront the major challenge of Iran will be affected by our ability to show progress in the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian arenas."
Emanuel has taken moderate, even dovish stances in the past. In November 2003, he was one of two Jewish House members to cosponsor a resolution to support the Geneva Accord, an unofficial framework agreement for a two-state solution reached between moderate Palestinians and Israelis. A decade earlier, while a domestic counselor to Bill Clinton, Emanuel was the eager behind-the-scenes organizer of the White House handshake between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin that cemented the Oslo peace process, according to participants. "Rahm ran the signing; he was in charge," says a former Clinton administration official who did not want to be quoted revealing White House discussions.
Emanuel's unusual broker's role might be especially useful in the coming year as Obama tries to forge an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program that could fall well short of Israeli expectations. The Obama administration has already begun to use milder language toward Iran than the Bush administration did. The Bush team had insisted on a cessation of all uranium enrichment, period. Obama administration officials also say they want to eliminate Tehran's enrichment capacity, but they're more focused on the larger goal: to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. There are also indications that new ideas are being considered. One was outlined in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report earlier this month: allowing Iran to continue enrichment at civilian levels, provided it comes clean about its alleged weapons program and agrees to very strict inspections. Asked about that and other proposals, two senior administration officials who would not be identified discussing sensitive issues said a halt to enrichment is preferred, but other possibilities have not been ruled out.
Any deal is still far off and would require a huge shift in relations between Iran and the West. So far, the Iranians have yet to agree on a start date for talks. But the Israelis are nonetheless wary. "I would be very surprised if legitimized enrichment in Iran under any circumstances is an acceptable outcome for this or any Israeli government," says Robert Satloff, whose Washington Institute for Near East Policy tends to reflect Israeli thinking. Add to that contradictory views on how best to achieve peace with the Palestinians, and you have the potential for what Satloff describes as "the greatest disagreement between the two countries in the history of their relationship."
All that will present political problems for Obama at home as well—with Emanuel playing his familiar role of fireman for his boss. Rep. Eric Cantor, the only Republican Jewish member of Congress, says the Obama administration is taking a position "that's vastly different from the mainstream American Jewish community" in trying to engage with Iran. "The pro-Israel community has consistently been for keeping sanctions pressure on the terrorist regime in Iran … The administration has indicated in all ways I can tell that we ought not to be pursuing sanctions while talks go on." (Administration officials deny they intend to let up on sanctions if talks go forward.)
Netanyahu wants a fixed timetable for the talks—something like three to six months—to prevent Iran from stalling even as it enriches weapons-grade uranium. At last week's summit, Obama appeared to concede rhetorically to Netanyahu when he said he would insist on seeing "some progress" by the end of the year. Officials close to Netanyahu, who did not want to be named discussing sensitive diplomacy, also say Israel wants to know now what measures Obama will be willing to take against Iran if the talks do fail. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about "crippling sanctions" in Congress in recent weeks but administration officials have declined to elaborate further.
Israel and the United States have certainly clashed before. When hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to stop settlement building in 1991, President George H.W. Bush withheld U.S. loan guarantees for $10 billion. Public ultimatums delivered at the time mainly by Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, irked many Israelis. But Edward Djerejian, who served under Baker and later became the ambassador in Tel Aviv, says a firm hand is sometimes helpful to Israeli politicians. "Rabin told me once that it can be very useful for an Israeli leader to get a clear message from the U.S. because he can then go to his constituencies and say, 'Look, I know this is tough and I don't like it much, but our best friend wants us to do this, and so we need to do it'," says Djerejian, who now heads the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Rahm Emanuel may be the best friend that Barack Obama sends out to deliver that message.