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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Symbiotic Relationship of President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu

I don't believe I am making any great intuitive point when I say that it is unlikely that books will be written about the transformative relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. I was no fly on the wall of their private meeting but it appears rather clear from body language that they don't necessarily like each other all that much. Since their meetings, statements by each lend credence that the two leaders don't see eye to eye on much of anything. Yesterday, I even speculated whether or not Obama is anti Israel. Only time will tell if this speculation will be proven accurate.

Yet, as I think about it, I believe their relationship will become symbiotic. There is a tension in goals. Obama is making the Israeli/Palestinian conflict the center piece of his Middle East policy. Meanwhile, Netanyahu sees Iran's nuclear program as the single greatest threat to his nation. The relationship is further complicated by another interesting dynamic. It is politically a lot more risky to be seen as anti Israel in the U.S. than it is to be seen as anti American, or at least its policies, in Israel. As such, Netanyahu has significantly more leverage than Obama here.

On the other hand, with Israel dependent on the U.S. for aid and weaponry, Obama can use this to his advantage. Ultimately though, at the risk of sounding crass, it is Netanyahu with the biggest trump. That's because the threats faced by Israel are existential, whereas, Obama has policy goals. Obama would like to avoid allowing Iran to get a nuclear weapon. For Israel, Iran gaining a nuclear weapon would threaten their very existence.

So, while Obama can demand that Israel not attack Iran's nuclear site, ultimately, there is no punishment that Obama can bring more serious than the threat to Israel's very existence. Even in the aftermath of an attack, there is little Obama could do. An attack on Iran's nuclear sites would likely be very popular with the American public. If Obama were to move to instill some sort of punishment against Israel for said attack, it would be at the risk of his own popularity.

What could Obama do exactly? Would he cut off aid? Would he suspend all weapons technology? Would he announce that the U.S. will not support Israel militarily anymore? Any of these would be soundly rejected by the public. His entire Middle East policy would be viewed skeptically and it would allow his opponents to trot out the most extreme of conspiracy theories on his true Middle East motives.T

he same dynamic is even more in play on settlements. The president will continue to press Netanyahu to cease the construction of all new settlements. Netanyahu has agreed to this but will continue to build when there is "natural growth". So, how far can the president go to force Netanyahu? He can't go much further. Again, would he really engage in draconian punishment if Israel refused to stop expanding their natural settlements? That would simply be political suicide.Obama's real leverage with Israel lies in his leverage with the leaders of other Middle East nations. If Obama really could extract normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, then he can dictate a lot more to Israel. It remains to be seen if he has any leverage there. He has personal popularity all over but so far that has resulted in nothing tangible with the Europeans. If Obama is unable to extract any tangible concessions from the Saudis et al, it allows Netanyahu to engage in domestic and foreign policy as he sees fit.

If, however, Obama is able to extract something tangible, for instance recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia, this complicates the issue for Netanyahu. First, it would be unclear just how legitimate such a recognition would be. I suspect the Israelis would gladly end all further settlement building if it meant real normalized relations with the Saudis.On the issue of Iran though, there is simply only one option for Israel. Netanyahu likely has a running clock in his head and when it runs out, he will have no choice but to take out their sites. If and likely when that happens, everyone will also see that besides stern words of condemnation, President Obama will have little choice but to watch it happen. Beyond that though, these two leaders will maintain a very tense and symbiotic relationship for the duration of both their terms.

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