Two Israeli businessmen - one a relative of Yitzhak Rabin's, and the other a former aide to the murdered prime minister - once visited Bill Clinton's office, at their own request, to try to interest him in some venture. The former U.S. president listened with demonstrative courtesy, went out with them to the lobby and loudly told his staff to please let him know how the two young men were progressing. He then put an arm around the shoulders of one, shook the hand of the other and escorted them to the door with great affection.
"Hurrah!" crowed the former aide as they walked to the elevator. "Clinton will help us!"
"You didn't understand him," sighed his partner, more experienced in the ways of America. "He told us, 'Get out of my sight and don't waste my time.'"
U.S. President Barack Obama, no great friend of Clinton's, adopted a similar mode of address in his speech to the AIPAC conference on Sunday: He spoke American. To translate it into Hebrew would do it an injustice. No one who knows Washington and its ways could mistake the subtext of his words. A strong commitment to Israel? Assuredly. Capitulation to the dictates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Not a chance.
After a speech like that, his meeting with Netanyahu on Monday is almost superfluous: It already seems clear that Obama is determined not to grant him anything.
Obama sent a complex, multifaceted message. He is a loyal friend of Israel, as evidenced by both the record of his actions over the last three years and the testimony of an eminent witness, President Shimon Peres. He is absolutely and unequivocally opposed to Iran having nuclear weapons. But he is first and foremost the U.S. president, whose commitment to do everything possible to thwart Iran's nuclear program has properly been given to the citizens of his own country - the ones who will pay the price of any war with their lives and their wallets - rather than to the impudent leader of a foreign country.
In the 1980s, Peres watched with growing frustration as the unity government he established together with Likud's Yitzhak Shamir bumped into the sharp right-wing leanings of AIPAC activists, who preferred the Shamir half of the government and embraced U.S. President Ronald Reagan's Republican administration. Peres, in an impulsive gesture, waived the appointment of his own candidate for UN ambassador, Elyakim Rubinstein, in favor of Likud's candidate, Netanyahu. And that is how, with his own two hands, he created the public and media reputation of the man who would defeat him in the prime ministerial race a decade later.
Obama's Democratic administration is not facing an Israeli unity government. But the unique status enjoyed by Peres, to whom Obama is ideologically akin, enables him to serve as a counterweight to Netanyahu.
Unlike the Israeli prime minister, who demonstratively surrounds himself with a screen of security guards provided by the Shin Bet security service, Obama looks like the supremely confident leader of a confident superpower. The cameras don't show a single security guard in his vicinity, though America has had no lack of assassinated presidents, from Lincoln to Kennedy.
Obama made do with the cover provided by one single but noteworthy guard: Peres. The praise Peres showered on Obama was a preemptive strike at Netanyahu, lest he entertain the notion of accusing Obama of indifference to Israel's fate. And Obama repaid the gesture by giving Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom and 250 warm words. Netanyahu received only a mention of their meeting on Monday and perhaps two or three words more. And his wife, Sara, got nary a word.
This is a campaign year, as Obama noted, and he came to speak to his supporters, donors and voters. In the acronym AIPAC, which stands for American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "American" precedes "Israel." The president is the commander in chief when it comes to the Iranian issue, but the head of his party when it comes to elections.
Therefore, he opened his speech by welcoming the delegates from his hometown of Chicago (where he will also host the NATO summit in another two months ), and especially his party chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Translation: Netanyahu is the ally of the Republicans - those who, in Obama's words, "question my administration's support for Israel" - and Netanyahu's patron, American Jewish businessman Sheldon Adelson, seeks to anoint a Republican in my place. But I, too, understand a bit about politics.
But the game being played by Netanyahu, who openly hopes for Obama's defeat, is dangerous for Israel. It blurs the boundaries between the grand statesmanship of national security considerations and the petty politics of meddling in someone else's elections. That is what lies behind Obama's clarification of the time frame for his policy: He believes that months still remain in which to exhaust the policy of pressuring the regime in Tehran, which is the only one that can decide to abandon the nuclear weapons option. In other words, right now it would be premature and rash to make good on his promise to use military force against Iran as a last resort - especially since its rulers may well insist on rebuilding the facilities destroyed in the operation.
The news in Obama's speech was that it deliberately didn't include any news. Everything he said last night has been said in the past, by him and by other senior administration officials. There's no point in trying to bargain for just a bit more ("Give me something - at least free Jonathan Pollard, so I don't go home empty-handed"). In American, this was a message whose meaning is unmistakeable.
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