What NCIS Tells Us About Obama and Netanyahu

If you want to understand the state of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, I suggest you look at some recent episodes of NCIS, the Navy crime drama on CBS, a show that has risen to #5 in the TV rankings this season. Apparently, for a long time, a peculiar arrangement has existed between the NCIS and Israel in the storyline, in which the brilliant daughter of the head of Mossad (Ziva David) has been embedded in the American NCIS. The lesson seems to be that the United States and Israel have an unusual relationship to the point where an Israeli agent can assist American specialists with the uncovering of crimes inside the United States and elsewhere.

Suddenly, however, the message has changed. Ziva has a lover, Michael Rivkin, an Israeli operative who also works for the Mossad. He happens to be temporarily in the United States. To the frustration of the NCIS agents, he is killing off terrorists operating in America before they can be reached by the Americans, sometimes reaching them minutes beforehand. Somehow he seems to know more than the entire American team and can get to the target first. He also demonstrates a different philosophy of fighting terrorism. The Israelis simply want them dead; the Americans want to capture them so they can find out further information about additional threats.

This is not heading in the direction of a happy ending and it is clear from other developments not described here that this special U.S.-Israeli cooperation is about to end. The message seems to be that the Israelis are extremely capable and their cause is just, but they're trigger-happy and too affected by their tragic past.

The NCIS writers seem to be telling us, whether they realize it or not, that there are two Israeli types symbolized here -- two Israels American policy makers have faced over the years. Ziva is the cooperative and quiet Israeli, who has the technical and personal skills to be of enormous assistance in achieving the mission -- in this case capturing criminals and terrorists. Michael is another type -- like Ziva bright and pro-American, but in this case tough, aggressive, thinks he knows what is best for the United States better than the Americans, is sly and wily, and he doesn't heed the advice of his American counterparts.

Ziva is someone who the American team respects and admires, a friend applauded and appreciated. Michael is regarded with suspicion and concern; the American agents know he has the same objective as they do, but they wonder openly whether his methods are helpful or productive. They beg him to go away; he is, in short, seen as more of a devious obstacle than an asset.

She is Shimon Peres or Yitzhak Rabin or even Ehud Olmert. American leaders like doing business with these leaders, and their own faith in the American-Israeli partnership is reinforced when they are dealing with people across the table with whom they feel they have a basic and fundamental consensus and understanding.

Michael is a different story; he is to some extent Yitzhak Shamir or Bibi Netanyahu. Michael is regarded with suspicion, because being on the same side isn't enough. When allies pursue similar tactics and strategies, that is often more important than just having the same objectives.

And, today, Bibi Netanyahu seems to be in a different place than Washington on a host of issues including Iran, Palestine, and Syria. It's almost as if just as Americans rejected Bush and his legacy, the Israelis voted for a leader who epitomized the confrontational views that the former president represented. That won't work in today's Washington.

If Bibi comes to visit the White House, and he appears as Ziva, the US-Israeli relationship under the new Obama administration will be enhanced. But if he's Michael, then the highly celebrated Washington-Jerusalem connection is in for some tough times indeed.

The NCIS story teaches us that American-Israeli relations are not a straight line. One day they may seem perfect; the next day the characters change on one or both sides or new plot twists emerge, and crises can develop as if from nowhere. As they say in TV land, stay tuned for next week's episode.