He came rather late to the United Nations General Assembly but was greeted as a rock star. The media breathlessly documented his every move, thousands of adoring compatriots flocked to Madison Square Garden to soak up his words, the U.S. administration went out of its way to give him the royal treatment and U.S. President Barack Obama strayed from protocol to devote two days to meeting with him, in addition to a jointly-penned Washington Post article and a state dinner attended by Washington’s who’s who. “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor” as the Book of Esther says.
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The man, of course, is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose visit to America preceded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s by just a bit and proceeded along the same venues, though that’s where the similarity ends. One can’t compare India and Israel, of course – with all due respect to us – but in this case, it’s not just size that matters. Obama rolled out the red carpet for Modi not only to redress grievances of the past – Modi was barred from entering the U.S. because of his alleged official role in bloody riots in Gujarat state over a decade ago – but also because the Indian leader is viewed as someone who can have a far-reaching and positive influence on future bilateral and economic relations between the two countries as well as the regional balance of power in Asia. Modi, officials in Washington said, has a lot of potential.
With Netanyahu, the situation is just the reverse: His UN address was scrutinized mostly by the devoted cognoscenti while the American media barely stifled its yawn, despite the storm in a teacup sparked in the Israeli media by Netanyahu’s luncheon with Sheldon Adelson. The administration, meanwhile, is looking forward to Netanyahu’s visit on Wednesday like one anticipates a dentist’s appointment or a pestering grumpy uncle who just called to say that he must come over. Unlike Modi, Obama doesn’t seem to have much interest in clearing the bad blood or turning over a new leaf with Netanyahu nor does he appear to harbor any hope that Netanyahu will suddenly emerge as a partner to U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the area. Were it not for the war on Islamic State – and the upcoming Congressional elections – Obama would have likely tried to find a plausible excuse to call in sick for his White House meeting.
And Netanyahu, let’s face it, hasn’t been whetting the presidential appetite. Before and after coming to America, the Israeli prime minister has repeatedly reiterated in public the messages and themes he intends to convey to Obama in private. In an appearance before a warm and receptive audience of several hundred Jewish leaders in Manhattan on Tuesday, Netanyahu once again laid out his agenda, in telegraphic form: Hamas=Islamic State, Iran is worse, Abbas was way out of line and Israel is the best. In theory one could posit that Obama and Netanyahu will find common ground by virtue of the new American campaign against Islamic State, but in practice one can imagine that after a few minutes Obama will glance at his watch, his eyes will glaze over, his fingers will start nervously tapping on some historic table in the Oval Office as Netanyahu explains how the Iranians are taking America for a ride, and now let me tell you what you should do.
The only possible deviation from this all too predictable script, for anyone who wants to keep up the suspense, may come from Netanyahu’s vague allusions to an enhanced role that he envisions for Arab states in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama might inquire how this wish to take advantage of the new regional realities that Netanyahu frequently espouses squares with his blasé dismissal of the only blueprint that its main protagonists support – the Arab/Saudi peace initiative. In order to maintain Obama’s slightly elevated curiosity, Netanyahu will have to persuade the American president that he has devoted thought and effort to fleshing out his concept more than what is required for creating a slick new slogan.
The irony is that Netanyahu is a victim of the same American attention deficit that plagued Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his own visit to New York. The two were eagerly courted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was trying to promote his peace process earlier this year, and they stepped back from the limelight over the summer when the fighting in Gaza took center stage. Now Obama has his own war to contend with, as well as the approaching elections that seem set to slap him with an embarrassing political setback. Obama would probably like nothing more than to get the meeting over with so that Netanyahu can go back home, safe and sound. About this, at least, the two leaders are in complete agreement.