The Potential Romance Between Obama and Netanyahu

06/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you expected a clash between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama in their first official meeting this week, you may need to wait. Though their first date produced no sparks, it went well enough to pursue a courtship.

And that's in the interest of both leaders. Their meeting, in fact, was more than a diplomatic obligation between the leaders of two allied nations that have just assumed office. It was a matter of symbiotic political need.

For Netanyahu, the Iranian issue is paramount. He is deeply convinced that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and he managed to get Obama to commit to a year-end deadline for assessing the progress of American talks with Iran and then to consider tougher measures.
Obama would like an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution. Netanyahu, as expected, did not go all the way, but came as close as possible without shaking his newly formed government. "We don't want to govern the Palestinians," he declared, evading expressing what we do want to do. He carefully crafted his wording to signal that Israel is committed to the peace process under the aegis of the United States.

But though Netanyahu can get away with such vagueness today, he will not be able to for long. The question to the prime minister -- do you support a Palestinian State? -- will hound him from all international quarters, including the United States, as President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made clear since taking office.

For now, Netanyahu will not capitulate. He and his advisers have been clear that their articulation of a further vision for Palestinian self-governance will come only after seeing action. Uzi Arad, Netanyahu's national security adviser, acknowledged in Haaretz that "there may be differences of opinion" with Obama, "but the practical approach of both parties will determine what happens."

Yet as Netanyahu defers on the vision question, Obama's popularity at home and abroad remains high because of his eagerness to provide vision. He is not likely to be satisfied with a process whose targets float in the air. Obama's style of leadership is setting the vision and then paving the road to achieve the goals.

In fact, that style has helped Obama gain popularity in Israel, hungry for political leadership from any quarter. Obama won't lose support in Israel because of his promotion of a peace plan whose end is a Palestinian state, even if a few ministers in the Israeli government move uncomfortably in their chairs. It is easy to forget that there are more ministers in the government who can live peacefully with a two-state solution (even the foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has endorsed it, not the least by voicing commitment to the American sponsored Road Map). Bill Clinton, remember, put the previously untouchable subject of Jerusalem on the table for negotiations and emerged more popular than any U.S. president before him.

Israelis regarded his willingness to invest his time, energy and political capital in the Middle East as sign of true concern about the future of Israel. Likewise, Obama's attention to the region and his Clintonesque way of restating the special commitment of the United States to Israel's security show good faith in the eyes of the Israeli people. And like President Clinton, Obama is surrounded by staff whom Israelis hold in high esteem, including Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff whose father is Israeli, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as revered in Israel as is any other woman in the world.

Most of all, Israelis support a two-state solution, even if they are skeptical about the ability to negotiate it successfully. To the uninitiated, the logic may seem daunting. But the truth is, Israelis place some of the blame on the weakness of their own leadership. They impatiently wait for deus ex machina to end the longest running drama of international politics in the form of American engagement.

Make no mistake, therefore: Obama's endorsement of a two-state solution -- and even his insistence that Israel's government do the same -- will be more than accepted in Israel. It will be embraced. Perhaps Netanyahu couldn't say otherwise on his first date with Obama, but that formula will continue to govern the future American policy in the region, and Netanyahu will have to make clear where he stands.