Why Bibi and Obama cosied up

It was in the interests of both the American and the Israeli leaders to act realistically


On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu met US President Barack Obama in one of the most minutely choreographed get-togethers in the history of diplomatic relations. The President can claim an overwhelming mandate to break with the policies of the Bush era. The Prime Minister can claim an overwhelming mandate to protect Israel’s interests in the international arena.

It is fashionable to regard Israel as a vassal state of the USA, dependent on it for arms and money, and for support and protection at the UN. Given this fashionable view, there was a great deal of media speculation, prior to Monday’s meeting, that Obama would “read the riot act” to Netanyahu and that Netanyahu might lose his temper and bluntly refuse, thus precipitating a private and even, perhaps, a public showdown. But this is not what happened at all.

It must be remembered that Obama is a first-term President. If he wants a second term, he will have to earn it. This is unlikely to happen if he alienates those many Jews who backed him last November (around 80 per cent of the American-Jewish vote). For Obama, much more than for Netanyahu, Monday’s meeting had to be a success, a positive encounter with Israel’s leader, not a negative one.

Obama — who is nothing if not a good schmoozer — was never going to confront Netanyahu with demands that were bound to be refused. To evacuate the West Bank by next week, for instance, or to permit Israel’s Jewish population (some 5.7 million) to be swamped by five million Arab “refugees” exercising a “right of return”.

Over the past few weeks, I have had private dialogues with some of Israel’s most implacable enemies within what I shall term the western academic community. Here were otherwise intelligent people speaking as if Netanyahu was going to agree to sign Israel’s death-warrant at Obama’s insistence.

“My friends,” I told my fellow academics, “you are living in cuckoo-land.” And I reminded them of the famous aphorism of Bismarck: “politics is the art of the possible”.

Both Netanyahu and Obama understand this only too well. I have never been one of Bibi’s most enthusiastic admirers but I have to say that, thus far into his current premiership, he has not put a foot wrong. He appears — certainly for the moment — to have tamed the volcanic Avigdor Lieberman, who, as Israel’s Foreign Minister, behaved impeccably during his own visit to London earlier this month.

Bibi’s inclusion of Ehud Barak in his government was a stroke of genius. Netanyahu the Likudnik heads a centrist government. Whatever concessions he makes in any resumed peace negotiations will therefore have been endorsed by those who represent a broad spectrum of Israeli opinion.

We can be sure that President Obama was advised of this — if he had not already worked it out for himself. Travel restrictions on Palestinians can certainly be eased. Some outlying Jewish settlements in the West Bank can certainly be dismantled — and if with a modest amount of well-publicised force, so much the better.

But the major areas of Jewish settlement are not going to be evacuated. For Arab “refugees” there will be no “right of return”, only compensation, balanced by compensation (for which Shas members of Netanyahu’s cabinet are already pressing) for Jews expelled from Arab lands.

Netanyahu, in spite of his public pronouncements to the contrary, appears to have indicated to the American President that he might even acquiesce in the establishment of an independent Palestinian-Arab “homeland” (to use the Pope’s well-chosen phrase) on the West Bank and Gaza — provided its government recognises Israel as a Jewish state.

The major foreign-policy disagreement between the US and Israel is not, in fact, in relation to the Palestinians, but is to be found in their respective approaches to Iran. Obama entered office believing that Iran’s present leadership can be appeased. Netanyahu does not share this view.

Neither do the governments of Egypt or Saudi Arabia. If Obama has any sense, he will have listened carefully to what his Israeli guest had to say on this subject at the White House this week.

    Last updated: 2:17pm, May 21 2009