Why are Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu at war? One answer is time. Bill Clinton couldn’t stand Netanyahu either. After his first meeting with Bibi, Clinton exclaimed “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” Clinton, however, only had to deal with Bibi for three years, in part because he sent three of his political consultants, Bob Shrum, Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, to help elect Ehud Barak in 1999. For Obama, it’s already been twice that long. His frustration has been building for years, and now that he’s no longer running for president, and no longer has a secretary of state who’s running for president, he and his aides are less willing to conceal their real feelings behind soothing language and shit-eating grins.
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But there’s a deeper reason for the current U.S.-Israeli standoff. It has to do with the significance each man ascribes to Iran. For all their personal estrangement, the two leaders aren’t going to DEFCON 1 over the Palestinians. Obama didn’t express his distaste for Netanyahu by supporting the latest Palestinian statehood bid at the UN or by condemning Israel’s behavior in last summer’s Gaza War. Bibi hasn’t annexed E1.
The reason Obama and Netanyahu are letting their true emotions show over Iran is because Iran matters to each in a way the Palestinians do not. That’s because each believes the way he handles Iran will help define how history sees him.
Netanyahu wants to be Winston Churchill. In 1993, he penned a New York Times oped comparing the Oslo Accords to the Munich Agreement. He’s been analogizing current events to the 1930s ever since. But the Palestinians don’t make a good stand in for the Nazis, especially now that they are divided and weak. And since becoming prime minister again in 2009, Bibi has done nothing regarding the Palestinians that will make history remember him as decisive or visionary. He’s just marked time, supporting a two-state solution just enough to keep America and Europe off his back but not enough to get anywhere near a deal.
Iran, as a potential regional hegemon, fits the Nazi role better. And it’s there that Bibi believes he’s carving his legacy. Like Churchill in the 1930s, he sees himself as the one world leader willing to honestly face a threat from which others avert their eyes. Like Churchill, he’s the only one who refuses to succumb to the culture of war weariness afflicting the West. He’s the only one who will not appease. For Netanyahu to concede that the deal the US is negotiating might work, and that Iran’s nuclear program can be halted by normal diplomatic means, would mean conceding that the Nazi-Iran analogy is flawed, and that the world has no need for another Churchill. Which would mean his prime ministership has no great historical meaning at all.
For Obama, the stakes are just as high. Like Netanyahu, he has great confidence in his understanding of international affairs. And like Netanyahu, he’s failed to secure a momentous legacy on any other foreign policy issue. Obama hasn’t fulfilled his promise to create a new understanding between the United States and the Muslim world, he hasn’t brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace, he hasn’t achieved his goals on global warming, he hasn’t successfully “reset” relations with Russia, he hasn’t crafted a new grand strategy for Asia, he hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay and, although he’s withdrawn most U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, neither country is on an encouraging path.
Iran may be Obama’s last chance. Were the United States to end its cold war with Tehran, it would gain another long-term energy partner, thus reducing American dependence on Saudi Arabia. A better relationship with Tehran might help the U.S. keep Iraq and Afghanistan from collapsing into civil war. It could create new opportunities for resolving Syria’s civil war. And Iran could prove a potent ally in the struggle against Sunni terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaida. Obama also likely believes that once Iran’s ruling class can no longer use the American threat to justify its repression, it will find it harder to monopolize power. To understand how Obama hopes to change Iran, just look at what he’s doing with Cuba: Another historic U.S. enemy whose dictatorship Obama believes can withstand isolation better than it can withstand engagement.
If Netanyahu’s inspiration is Churchill, Obama’s is Richard Nixon. Nixon recognized that the communist world, although often depicted as monolithic in Washington, was actually bitterly divided. And he exploited that division by building a new relationship with China, thus giving the U.S. new leverage over the USSR. Similarly, in Washington today, terms like “Islamist” and “radical Islam” obscure the bitter divide between Shia Iran and its Sunni foes. By opening relations with Iran, and making the U.S. less dependent on regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Obama believes he can improve America’s position in the Mideast in a way historians will applaud.
Beneath these two competing analogies lie two radically different ways of viewing the world. Churchill’s achievement lay in his insistence on taking Nazi ideology seriously. Nixon’s lay in his willingness to look behind China’s ruling ideology to see the national interests that lay beneath.
It’s possible that neither Netanyahu nor Obama will succeed in crafting the legacy he wants. Netanyahu may leave office without stopping Iran’s nuclear program; Obama may leave office without cutting a deal that improves America’s position in the Middle East. But if Netanyahu fails, it won’t be because he yields to Obama, and vice versa. For each man, giving up in the current fight over Iran would mean giving up on the way he sees himself.