The Forecast: Good Obama Meeting, Unless Netanyahu Goes Off Script

The timing of the appointment of a new hasbara chief who calls the president an anti-Semite reminded some Americans of the scorpion and the frog.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Obama and Netanyahu during their meeting at the White House, September 30, 2013.
Obama and Netanyahu during their meeting at the White House, September 30, 2013.Credit: Bloomberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive for his meeting with President Obama at the White House on Monday morning with a distinct psychological advantage. Over the past few months Netanyahu has broken historical records for unpredictable behavior and statements; he has astounded fierce critics and devoted disciples alike. Netanyahu’s ability to act against what everyone assumes is basic logic and his own self-interest virtually guarantees that Washington will handle him with care, to try and avert yet another baffling blowup.

Erratic and unpredictable behavior is often a symptom of emotional distress, but it also plays a role in games theory, as a sometimes-effective and deterrent tool in international relations and domestic governance. Evolution studies reveal that species that adopted unpredictable behavior were often better equipped to evade predators and survive for future generations. For a politician like Netanyahu, who often seems to feel isolated and persecuted but has nonetheless emerged as one of the great survivors in Israel’s political history, unpredictability seems almost basic.

For this reason, all of the comments and briefings and analyses about what to expect from the Obama-Netanyahu meeting seem to contain such caveats as “logic dictates”, “the belief is” and “officials hope”. Because conventional thinking dictates that both leaders have a vested interest in having a plausibly pleasant rendezvous despite the burden of love that isn’t lost between them.

Obama won the battle over the Iran nuclear deal, seems to have given up on the peace process and is interested in peace and quiet on the pro-Israel and Congressional front as he begins his last year in the White House and the Democrats prepare to retake it. Netanyahu is looking for an enhanced security package as well as a protective U.S. diplomatic umbrella in the international arena. He should be jumping for joy, presumably, at the realization of the Likud’s eternal quest for American presidents that have lost any ambition to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the reasoning and logic of the various experts and commentators isn’t always in sync with Netanyahu’s operating procedures, and the gap has only gotten wider in recent months. Let’s even posit that Washington has already digested Netanyahu’s ill-advised March speech to Congress against the Iran deal and the express wishes of the White House, despite the fact that even his supporters admit today that it alienated Democrats and probably scuttled any chance for the ‘no’ vote that Netanyahu was seeking against the nuclear accord.

Netanyahu’s subsequent election day “Arabs are coming to vote in droves” proclamation, however, sparked deeper shock and wider outrage that haven’t completely abated. And even if one can somehow rationalize that disgrace with the bottom line of Netanyahu’s unequivocal reelection, the prime minister’s recent portrayal of Hitler being coaxed into exterminating the Jews by the evil Mufti defies any rational explanation and was, for many, the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the ultimate proof that Netanyahu is no longer playing by the hitherto accepted rules.

That’s why Netanyahu’s decision - on the eve of his White House meeting - to appoint as Israel’s new director of hasbara someone who had called Obama an anti-Semite on Facebook and request for a massive American security package probably sparked less shock and indignation and more resigned shrugs than what might have otherwise been expected. The incident did lead some Americans to recount the famous fable about the scorpion who stings the frog that is carrying him across the river, but at least the scorpion had a rational explanation: “That’s my character,” he said. The same Americans have yet to come up with a similar reasoning for Netanyahu’s ways, and if they have, they’re certainly not repeating it out loud.

According to the logic of the outside world, Netanyahu’s objectives should be to make nice to everyone in the U.S. capital, extract whatever he can from Obama and Congress and return home quickly and safely. The organizers of the General Assembly of Jewish Federations, which Netanyahu is to address on Tuesday morning, are certainly hoping for a quiet and productive meeting with the president that will enable them to roundly cheer and wildly applaud the Israeli prime minister, as they always have. But they would be calmer right now if they were absolutely certain that Netanyahu had not brought a hat with him from Israel - and if he had, that it doesn’t contain another one of his peculiar and often rabid rabbits.

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