Benjamin Netanyahu may eventually figure out that Barack Obama is not George Bush, who never seemed to grasp that Israel's survival depended on the U.S. and not the other way around.
Nor did Bush have Netanyahu's measure. Obama does, understanding that he is a coward masquerading as a bully who is caught between Israeli factions even more bellicose than himself (think far-right Republicans) and a president with whom he will have to deal, in all likelihood, for the rest of his tenure as prime minister.
This is the dynamic playing out behind Netanyahu's visit to Washington. The visit includes a face-to-face meeting with Obama at the White House, a Netanyahu address to Congress that Republicans had unsuccessfully tried to arrange prior to Obama's speech so that he could pre-empt him, and separate appearances before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, the Chicken Little of lobbying groups and one so powerful that it has been able to make U.S. politicians, from president on down, quake on command. Until now.
Netanyahu's White House visit in March 2010 was punctuated by a not-so-subtle snub by Obama, who walked out in the middle of tense talks to have supper with his family, leaving the prime minister to cool his heels. The reason was Netanyahu's refusal to back down over Israel's latest poke in the Palestinian eye: New Jewish construction in East Jerusalem.
It was not a coincidence that an Israeli government committee approved more new construction in East Jerusalem as Netanyahu's Washington-bound jet was in the air and just hours before an address on the Middle East in which Obama again stated that Israel's pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations over a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu's view is that the 1967 borders are indefensible, which is a curious assertion because Israel had no problem defending those borders in . . . uh, 1967.
The U.S.'s position, one that Obama has delineated before, is shared by the international community. No matter. It was, of course, greeted with feigned horror by the Likudniks at Fox News and prompted the requisite harrumphing from Netanyahu, who make sure the world knew that he had called Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and chewed her out. Right on cue, AIPAC demanded that the U.S. reaffirm its commitment to the Jewish state.
No reaffirmation is necessary. Obama was unequivocal in his speech that the U.S. will continue to stand by Israel and that the Palestinians must make their own concessions, but it is 2012 and not 2004 and the Middle East, where change has always been glacial, is moving forward at dizzying speed while Israel digs itself an ever deeper hole.
The upshot of the White House meeting was no surprise. Netanyahu, who is transparently contemptuous of Obama, said he shared his vision for peace between Israelis and Palestinians but then rattled off the nonnegotiable conditions that have kept the two sides at an impasse for years, in effect rejecting all of the compromises that the president has offered.
In fairness to Netanyahu, even if he wanted help speed Palestinian statehood as a sop to the U.S. and Israel's neighbors, which he does not, it would bring down his government. So he will not do what is in Israel's bests interests because they are not in his.
But the Netanyahu may be a little too shrewd for his own good. Obama will not back down, as did Bush when faced with Israeli wrath, and I expect that the president will end up playing the prime minister as he has played other foes.
In this case, the denouement could come in September when the Palestinians are expected to launch a unilateral push for statehood in the U.N. General Assembly. That will be a symbolic gesture, but Netanyahu nevertheless will insist on a U.S. veto in the Security Council. He would be foolish to assume that Obama will accede to being his straw man by being the obstacle to statehood.
Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in 1995 in Tel Aviv's Kings Square for being on the right side of history, while 16 years later Netanyahu is so completely on the wrong side that it boils my Jewish blood. But I can and do take comfort that there is an American president who will not be Israel's stooge.Photograph by The Associated Press