THE BLOG

Obama and Netanyahu Are in Lock-Step Agreement: Will That Continue? Should It?

TEL AVIV -- The flare-up of violence between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas faction became the latest test for Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. And so far, they are behaving like the best of buddies.

How could Obama take any other stand, other than to agree with Israel's targeted assassinations aimed at Hamas activists? After all, the CIA and the United States military use the same tactics against al Qaeda and other terrorist suspects. That's what Youssef Munayyer, executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington D.C., told me on the CBS News Weekend Roundup. Munayyer, a Palestinian-American analyst and activist, says he does not fully endorse either Hamas or the rival Fatah.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course, is also no fan of those factions. While he has voiced interest in a two-state solution -- with a Jewish state of Israel living alongside an Arab state of Palestine -- it seems clear that he is in no rush to institute that vision. Among other objections, he and his supporters point out that the Palestinians are so divided that no one can make a reliable deal. Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. And right-wing Israelis such as Netanyahu harbor strong doubts about trusting Yasser Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and head of Fatah.

From the moment that Obama was reelected, eight days before violence surged between Gaza and Israel, it could have been predicted that he would be riding a roller-coaster again with Netanyahu. They had their bumpy relationship for three years, and then the Israeli leader was perceived as leaning heavily toward Mitt Romney -- not only hoping that his old friend, the Republican candidate, would win but fully expecting that Romney would be the next president.

If that really was Netanyahu's bet, he bet wrong. Israeli politicians close to him immediately expressed their fear that Obama would "take revenge" on him. They expected that the president -- enjoying a new mandate and generally annoyed at Netanyahu -- would find some way to embarrass or weaken the prime minister during the Israeli election campaign.

Israelis will be electing a new Knesset, or parliament, on January 22. In general, the prime minister will be the head of the political party that wins the most seats. A victory for Netanyahu has been predicted by almost all observers, and the Gaza military campaign -- unless it goes disastrously wrong for Netanyahu -- is likely to ensure his victory. His governing coalition will likely be bigger than he has now.

The prime minister's political foes still hope that Obama will wreak revenge. Perhaps, they say, the Gaza crisis will motivate America's leader to announce a bid for Israeli-Palestinian peace that would expose Netanyahu as an opponent of peace. Perhaps the United States will again demand a total freeze on the construction of housing in East Jerusalem and the West Bank for Jewish settlers.

If they do not make sure to stand together -- with the kind of unity the Gaza crisis has produced, if only because Hamas is considered a clear obstacle to all peace prospects -- the president and the prime minister could easily find themselves in another round of harrowing turns, dizzying highs and lows, and even a dose of screaming. They have been there and have done that.

Yet, even after the Gaza violence subsides and hopefully without the bloodshed and suffering that an Israeli ground invasion would cause, Obama and Netanyahu should find a way to avoid the roller-coaster. They should continue finding ways to step off their hair-raising ride.

It is time for Obama and Netanyahu to put aside churlish things and focus on working together. The alternative could well be a Middle East war even more destructive and dangerous than the Gaza violence.

The two men have never seemed to get along well, in part due to a clash of styles but more because of differing visions of what Israel must do to achieve security and stability. Their clash, marked by unconcealable antipathy and distrust, centered on two of the region's main issues: stopping Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons, and achieving peace with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu kept thundering that the United States was not doing enough to stop Iran -- so Israel might have to act alone. The fact is that America has been doing a lot, including covert action with the Israelis. Yet by beating the war drums and belittling U.S. efforts, Netanyahu was threatening to damage the Obama reelection campaign.

On the Palestinian front, Obama's efforts to revitalize the peace process hit a Netanyahu wall. The lack of progress also coincided with the so-called Arab Spring, and as pro-American regimes were toppled, the president could not point to significant achievements in the Middle East.

The leader-to-leader friction reached its zenith when Netanyahu highlighted his old friendship with Mitt Romney and welcomed the Republican candidate for a fundraiser in Jerusalem hosted by Sheldon Adelson. Everyone in politics knew that the casino mogul is Netanyahu's biggest American supporter and poured millions of dollars into a pro-Romney Super PAC.

Now Obama has his chance to respond by making Netanyahu sweat during his campaign for a fresh four-year term and a strengthened coalition. The president might, as in 2009, try again to put some distance between the U.S. and Israel. Netanyahu might be harmed, because the ritual of Israeli politics rewards a prime minister who is maintaining excellent relations with Washington. That tends to make Israeli voters feel safe.

Because of his reelection mandate and the blows being dealt against Hamas by Israel's military, Obama could see this as the moment to press for a fresh start of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He considers an independent Palestinian state, living in peace alongside Israel, as a key to American interests in the Middle East. He could renew his demand that Israel make gestures such as freezing the construction of settlements and removing security roadblocks in the West Bank.

Yet trying to prod Netanyahu into perspiring would, in the end, be self-defeating. These two leaders have an Iran problem that they must resolve in 2013. They need to work together to block Tehran's quest for nuclear weapons, using the combination of tactics that emerged in the past eight years: international sanctions against Iran that progressively are harshened, secret operations such as sabotage and cyberwarfare, and war threats that have become Netanyahu's specialty.

They must cooperate to slow or halt Iran, using innovative strategies and methods that stop short of war. They should cleverly avoid all-out conflict that could lead to countless Israeli casualties, and Americans might also be targeted.

While standing united against Iran, Obama and Netanyahu should also devote energy to the Palestinian issue. Creativity, persistence, and open-mindedness will be needed in abundance; but solving Israel's dispute with its most immediate Arab neighbors would go a long way to giving the Jewish state the security it has sought since 1948. It should be a very high priority for both Israel and the United States.

Israel needs American support, and the prime minister should be ready to show good will by offering concessions to reignite the peace process. That would not only improve relations with the Obama administration. Netanyahu would be showing statesmanship and enhancing Israeli national interests.

The seventeenth anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination was recently marked at the murder site in Tel Aviv, but it was sad to see that the Israeli peace activists he addressed in his final hour of life have mostly surrendered to despair. They need bold leaders to give them hope, as do Arabs who want the upheavals in their countries to lead somehow to brighter futures.

Rabin came tantalizingly close to a comprehensive deal with the Palestinians, and other prime ministers since 1995 have defied frustration by making attempts. No one can afford to give up.

Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent in Washington. He is author, with Yossi Melman, of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. They blog at IsraelSpy.com.

Subscribe to the World Post email.