Within 36 hours, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met at the White House, and "NCIS," the crime drama about a naval intelligence unit, concluded its season with an emergency trip to Israel. Last week, I asked whether the U.S.-Israeli relationship depicted in the NCIS intelligence connection to Israel provided any guidance in preparation for the meeting.
Now the question is whether the fantasy saga and the real-life summit provide any parallels. Whether the writers on the fifth most popular American TV show realize it or not, they are reflecting and perhaps shaping many Americans' perspective on the Jerusalem-Washington connection, especially because "NCIS" depicts intelligence connections, which are rarely discussed in public.
The final episode was filled with confusing confrontation between and among Israeli and American personnel. The theme seemed to be trust, and there appeared to be little of it, both within the respective American and Israeli camps as well as between them. The Americans and Israelis had become practically one team, and a dysfunctional one at that. As each pursued their differing strategies toward combating terrorism, it seems that they were simultaneously hating and interfering with each other.
But, it was the personal level on which the confusion seemed clearest, epitomized perhaps most dramatically when the Mossad director tells his daughter, the agent embedded with NCIS, that he is not sure anymore whether her true loyalties lie with the NCIS or with Mossad. By the end of the show and season, it is not clear who is a friend to whom and who is not.
By contrast, the Obama and Netanyahu meeting seemed benign. Despite all of the build-up for an apparent confrontation filled with acrimony, the actual event was cordial indeed. At the news conference ending their meeting, the two leaders went out of their way to praise their counterpart. It almost seemed as if each was describing the other in the terms he hoped would be realized. Thus, Netanyahu portrayed Obama as a close friend of Israel who would stick by the Jewish state no matter what, and Obama talked about Netanyahu's ability to make concessions and deal with the Arab side in ways that would finally resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute.
On Iran, the two sides seemed again to have almost identical positions, as Netanyahu accepted Obama's strategy, and Obama agreed to a sort of deadline that Netanyahu has pushed, suggesting he would reevaluate the outcome of the talks with Iran at the end of the year. While their differences on the Palestinians were clear, Netanyahu seemed to be desperately trying to put as positive a face on his careful avoidance of the phrase ("Two-State Solution") as he possibly could. He even agreed with Obama that the President's efforts with Iran could go on simultaneously with the peace process, where he had previously suggested that the peace process could only be pursued in earnest when the Iran issues had been settled satisfactorily.
Yet, for all the apparent camaraderie, the styles belied the message. Both men clasped their hands in front of them, a sign of inherent nervousness. Despite the spectacular performances obviously aimed at the home audiences and the reaffirmation of friendship, affection seemed missing. Obama even got Netanyahu's age wrong when suggesting he was young (he is actually 59 as the Israeli prime minister quickly noted).
In advance, the left had salivated at this likely opportunity to criticize Netanyahu for not being sufficiently forthcoming, and the right was sharpening its knives to attack Obama for being insufficiently pro-Israel. In the end, both ideological sides were disappointed. Netanyahu, though ducking the precise enumeration of support for a Palestinian state, was just conciliatory enough to prevent the left from having a real field day with his statements. On the right, Obama's masterful presentation provided no opening for criticism whatsoever. Instead, the right was left to argue that the successful meeting reaffirmed the close U.S.-Israeli relationship, suggesting that all of the talk of U.S.-Israeli conflict was just that: talk. In any case, many commentators pointed out that it was the private meetings that were the real test, not the public demonstrations of consensus that the two leaders so carefully presented.
So, in the end, the "NCIS" presentation was not that different from the two leaders' meeting after all. The drama presented a relationship filled with a variety of levels of trust and mistrust, of good and bad communication, of personal friendships and animosities, of similar objectives but different tactics. The summit presented a similar variety of levels in which the Americans and Israelis express camaraderie and agreement, but underneath there are signs of discord. If the drama was more acerbic than the reality, the mystery was even greater at the White House. Were Obama and Netanyahu genuinely expressing agreement or delicately skirting differences and helping each other with their respective domestic aims? Was the U.S.-Israeli relationship on a collision course, or did a successful first meeting suggest that, as Obama once put it, he and Netanyahu are both pragmatists in the end, and therefore they will be able to work together?
The summit suggested that, at least for now, neither Obama nor Netanyahu are prepared to air their dirty linen, if it exists, in public. They are prepared to make a show of cooperation, leaving the rest of us guessing as to whether the public performance is the genuine reality. The TV show left everyone guessing as to what was really happening. The rest of us who are either not in TV or did not attend the White House meeting will have to wait until next season to see how the real drama (as well as the fantasy) turns out.