Tina Brown: Israel and Britain

Ron Sachs-Pool / Bloomberg-Getty Images

“Phew!” Obama must be saying to himself right now. “He’s gone!” Bibi Netanyahu was just in Washington, and if there’s a world leader the president winces at the prospect of meeting, it’s the Israeli bruiser, in so many ways the opposite of Obama. Bibi’s stocky, Obama’s a stick; Bibi wants to bomb Iran, Obama isn’t sure this is a cool idea. Bibi’s critics think he’s a bully, Obama’s think he’s a wimp.

Speaking of the special relationship between Israel and America at their meeting, Netanyahu said to Obama: “We are you, and you are us. We are together.” Had there been any other recent American president sitting across from him—Clinton or Bush—Bibi’s words would have been received like a delicious kiss. But Obama, we all know, wasn’t offering any tongue. He is the first American president—maybe the only one—for whom Israel is more notional than visceral. It drives Netanyahu nuts that Obama approaches Israel as he would a theorem—or as just another country. As the provocative Peter Beinart argues in this issue, Obama’s mindset on Israel was shaped by Palestinian sympathizers in Chicago—the liberal “civil-rights Jews” of the kind who would, in all certainty, find Netanyahu unbearable. So the president bites his tongue and chokes back his instincts when dealing with Israel.

In the parade of visiting prime ministers, next up is one who describes Churchill as his role model. This week David Cameron will drop in on Obama (role model: FDR), and the president is likely to have a much jollier time of it all than he did with Netanyahu. Cameron is even younger than Obama and, like the president, carries with him the baggage of his birth. In Obama’s case, it is his race; in Cameron’s, his social class—so very upper that he is a fifth cousin of Queen Elizabeth. His father-in-law is a baronet. (Obama’s was a pump worker at a Chicago water plant.)

Cameron takes a lot of heat in Britain for being a toff—class is a convenient punching bag in ways that race isn’t—and it is remarkable that in this era an old Etonian made it to Downing Street at all. That Cameron did so is a tribute to his easy charm and his very undoctrinaire politics. As Niall Ferguson puts it, “Compared with the likes of Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich, Cameron’s brand of liberal conservatism comes from another planet.” This should allow Obama to feel infinitely more comfortable with Cameron—notwithstanding the fact that one of his first less-than-gracious acts after he became president was to send back to London a bust of Cameron’s hero Churchill.

One of Cameron’s first acts after an election that brought him precariously to power was to make cuts in public spending “on a scale not seen in the U.K. since World War II”—test-driving the very austerity measures that the U.S. will be unable to duck after November’s elections. If Britons are hurting in the present, poisonous recession, so are Americans. The air is thick with the kind of despondency that Arthur Miller evokes in his Death of a Salesman, opening shortly on Broadway in a new production by Mike Nichols. “It’s very much a moment for this play,” Nichols tells Sam Tanenhaus. “Everybody’s a salesman. We’re a nation of Willy Lomans.” Is Willy today’s Everyman? I hope not. We all know what happened to him, and I like to think there’s resilience—and life—in America yet.

Join the Discussion