For Netanyahu: A challenge and an opportunity

The test of Netanyahu's statesmanship will be his ability to signal genuine readiness to cooperate with Obama.

The day after US President Barack Obama's victory, the most widely asked question in Israel is whether and how Obama will settle the score with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in recent months has been perceived as supporting Obama's Republican opponent Mitt Romney, and as having overstepped the mark in normal relations between two countries as far as non-intervention in each other's internal politics is concerned.

The main thesis I wish to present here is that even if there is pent-up anger on the part of Obama and his team, the main considerations that will guide them will be pragmatic ones. Even a president of the US is only human, and he has feelings. Anger and resentment are two of them, and it certainly may be that he will give vent to them. It might also be that if the center-left block in Israel puts up a credible candidate against Netanyahu in Israel's forthcoming election, Obama will give some kind of expression to his preference.

Such things have happened in the past in relations between the two countries. But in the end, the Obama administration will be guided by the desire and the need to succeed in the conduct of its policy in the Middle East. This effort will be part of a broader one to broadcast the message that the US is not in decline but remains the leader of the world.

The administration's attitude will also be affected by the specific challenges facing the US in the Middle East: a nuclear Iran and its drive towards regional hegemony; the rise of the Islamists; civil war in Syria; the Palestinian question; and more.

In his first term, Obama made a mistake, and inaugurated his foreign policy with an attempt to appease the Muslim world, and to start up an Israeli-Palestinian peace process quickly, which he saw as a condition for success of the appeasement effort. Three years later, Obama abandoned this effort, and it looks as though he understood that he built it on mistaken foundations.

Psychologically and ideologically Obama seems to have remained committed to the effort to solve, or at least make progress on, the Palestinian question. But his experience has taught him how hard that effort is. The president and his people also know that in the Middle East of 2013 there are other, no less urgent problems on the agenda: the Iranian nuclear clock continues to tick; thousands of civilians are being killed in Syria; the Muslim Brotherhood is tightening its grip on Egypt; and so forth.

Therefore, the US has to formulate a comprehensive and realistic Middle East policy. Success in this effort requires Israel's cooperation. Although such cooperation could be obtained by arm twisting, it would be preferable to obtain it by agreement. Therein lies a challenge and an opportunity for the prime minister of Israel.

It is possible to mollify Obama and smooth over past grievances. It is desirable to shape a policy based on cooperation with the US and to reach a situation in which pragmatic considerations and the desire to succeed assist in turning a new page in relations with it. That won't be easy. There are differences of opinion and outlook between the US and Israel.

For example, the Iranian nuclear problem looks different from Washington and Jerusalem. But the two countries also have much in common, and the test of Netanyahu's statesmanship will be his ability to signal genuine readiness to act jointly with Obama.

A US president is sometimes prepared to hear "No" from an Israeli prime minister, but such a response must be given within a wider context of trust and a sense of agreement on broad lines of policy.

The writer is a former ambassador of Israel in the US.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on November 7, 2012

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

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