U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in the U.S. in January 2010. Photo by (GPO)
Text size

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet tomorrow at the White House, share a trait that is dangerous to both their countries: They are not intimidating. Neither other countries nor hostile organizations have any fear of them. And from there, the road is short to contempt, and thence to disastrous mistakes.

Ever since Napoleon, at the very latest, the standard description of wise strategy has been "an iron fist in a velvet glove." Diplomacy that is not backed by power, meaning both the capability and the willingness to use it, is mere rhetoric - especially when it comes to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Obama's strategy - if the cumulative effect of his acts of commission and omission can be dignified with that name - is a velvet fist in a velvet glove, while Netanyahu's is a velvet fist in an iron glove. Both men broadcast weakness, but the Israeli version of this policy is further marred by the unnecessary humiliation of individuals and communities that place a high value on their own honor.

Thus far, Obama has remained on the path charted by his predecessor, George W. Bush, with regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has not proven that, for the sake of upholding American interests, he is willing to go as far in employing military force in other theaters as well - those, like Iran, where he cannot hide behind Bush. Obama is thereby worsening the Iranian problem, because the Gulf states, which fear Iran, have discerned America's weakness and are considering whether to switch their allegiance to the rising regional power.

The most important decision made by George H.W. Bush, according to senior members of his administration, was to promise the Saudis, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, that Riyadh's consent to stationing Western forces in its territory would obligate Bush "to finish the job" - to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait come what may, either by dialogue or by force. In contrast, it is hard to believe Obama today when he says he will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Another example of Obama's weakness is Afghanistan. The repeated American statements about a withdrawal in the summer of 2011 (which have been softened a bit in recent days by Gen. David Petraeus, and due to his influence ), pushed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to seek a deal with the Taliban. Obama thereby repeated the mistake made by former Israeli premier Ehud Barak, who set a deadline in advance for pulling the Israel Defense Forces out of Lebanon.

Local forces that remain in place even after the foreign invaders have gone home - the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hezbollah in Lebanon - can adopt either of two tactics: launching an offensive that will paint the retreating foreigners as having been defeated, or waiting patiently until they leave and then seizing power. Either way, the foreigners' allies (the South Lebanon Army, Karzai ) have an incentive to reach their own private agreements with their enemies, who are likely to be victorious, before that happens.

Netanyahu, for his part, constantly conveys weakness. He is serially intimidated by pressure and always capitulates to the last person to apply it. When he threatens, the threats are not viewed as credible, both because of the plunge in Israel's international status and because of the Israeli public's opposition to military operations that entail casualties. And by clinging to the territories and the settlements, he is undermining the security basis for Israel's arguments.

Yet it this very weakness that is likely to spur both Obama and Netanyahu into military offensives. Iran will continue thumbing its nose at Obama, and may thereby force him to take military action against it. For if he does not, many other countries will also acquire nuclear capability, having lost faith in the already tattered American umbrella - and Obama, the man who preached of a world gradually ridding itself of nuclear weapons, will be remembered as the president who bequeathed a more nuclearized world to his successor than he inherited from his predecessor.

Netanyahu, in order to rid himself of a weakness that invites attack, needs a different government and a different policy, one that will focus primarily on protecting Israel's core interests and conduct its strategy accordingly. The only practical way to do this is by sharing power with Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni in a government whose platform would be more moderate, but that would not hesitate to use force to achieve it.

Shortly after the last general election, Netanyahu conditioned a rotation deal with Kadima on his Likud party's getting the premiership for two-thirds of the term, while Livni demanded a 50-50 rotation. But the passage of time has solved this political math problem. Now that he has already spent one-third of his term in sole control, he will be able to split the two-thirds that remain 50-50.