WASHINGTON - Those who attended Monday's meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States President Barack Obama at the White House formed the impression that while there was no lovefest: The conference was a businesslike encounter between two people whose lives have compelled them to work together.
The Israeli delegation, which at such meetings usually has tales to tell of small talk, laughter and the development of a personal friendship between the prime minister and the president, did not even try to peddle any such stories this time. Both Obama and Netanyahu had an interest in looking like they were standing firm and not melting at the first meeting. The serious expression on Obama's face, even when Netanyahu complimented him on his friendship with Israel, was intended to prove to television viewers worldwide that the new president was not blindly toeing the Israeli line like his predecessor did.
After the meeting, Netanyahu talked about the emergence of a new set of partners, a president and a prime minister, like previous partnerships American leaders have had with their counterparts in Britain and Israel. Netanyahu appears to be comparing himself to the historical figure he most admires, Winston Churchill, and alluding to Churchill's ties with Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. Churchill worked hard to bring Roosevelt into the war against Hitler, just as Netanyahu would like Obama to act against Iran, which the prime minister compares to Nazi Germany.
The relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill got off to a rocky start, with the British leader pestering the White House with scores of desperate letters until the American president pushed his country into helping Britain, despite having promised in his election campaign that he would keep America out of the war in Europe. Perhaps this is the model to which Netanyahu is aspiring.
Well-known Israeli-American "couples" were also characterized by differences of opinion and quarrels, not just by smiles and agreement. John F. Kennedy initiated the security cooperation with Israel, but demanded that the Dimona nuclear reactor be shut down. Lyndon Johnson hosted Levi Eshkol at the White House and agreed to supply aircraft and tanks to the Israel Defense Forces, but did not prevent the Six-Day War. Richard Nixon was anti-Semitic, but recognized Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity and sent it an airlift of weapons to help Israel fight the Yom Kippur War. Jimmy Carter was angered by the settlements, but supported Menachem Begin's efforts to make peace with Egypt. Ronald Reagan liked Israel, but punished it for aggressive behavior and publicized his plan for a withdrawal from all the territories, which angered Begin. Yitzhak Shamir clashed with George H.W. Bush over the settlements, but did what he asked in the Gulf War.
Even the most loving of the couples had their share of disagreements. In going ahead with the Oslo Accords, Yitzhak Rabin surprised Bill Clinton, who preferred the Syrian track. Clinton was deeply disappointed when, as prime minister, Ehud Barak held back from an agreement with Syria - but nevertheless worked with him to engineer the Camp David Accords, which turned out to be another failure. It took a year before George W. Bush began to like and trust Ariel Sharon, and it was only after Israel made an additional effort that the Bush administration supported the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip while neglecting the peace process. Ehud Olmert boasted about chatting with Bush about sports and about the deep friendship they developed, but the president rejected most of his requests.
The conclusion to be drawn from the historical precedents is that while personal chemistry between leaders does help solve problems and avoid public embarrassment, the respective interests of each country are more important. Obama is not going to attack Iran even if Netanyahu becomes his guru tomorrow. Obama's prevailing consideration will be the risks and benefits that such an action would pose to America's interests. Likewise, Netanyahu is not going to evacuate the West Bank settlements of Ofra and Beit El just because of Obama's charisma; he will do so only if he recognizes that the damage they cause is greater than their continued existence, as Sharon realized with the Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif.
However, despite the greater weight of national considerations over personal ones, the creation of trust and closeness between leaders is quite valuable, since it makes it easier to enlist support, even when the other side had plans of its own.
Thus, it is necessary for Netanyahu to arrive at an understanding with Obama about the settlements and outposts, and to keep his promises instead of trying to soft-soap the president with empty promises, as his predecessors did. More importantly, Netanyahu would do well to initiate a peace plan of his own and pitch it to the Obama administration, instead of letting the U. S. take the lead. That, more than anything else, is how former prime ministers Begin, Rabin and Sharon succeeded in swaying their American counterparts.
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