2015-09-16 / Mideast

Will Obama and Netanyahu reconcile in 5776?

By RON KAMPEAS
JTA


President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, Mar. 22, 2013. JTA photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, Mar. 22, 2013. JTA photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images. WASHINGTON—Now that enactment of the Iran nuclear deal appears to be a sure thing, the profound and often personal disagreement between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Iran is not about to go away.

In the contemplative spirit of the Days of Awe, we canvassed the experts to recommend a way forward for the two leaders.  Stop the sniping and work out differences behind closed doors.

However you come at the U.S-Israel rupture, pointing a finger at Team Obama or Team Bibi—or blaming both—there’s a consensus: Stop the public sniping.

“Take a timeout,” said Joel Rubin, until recently a deputy assistant secretary of state and now president of the Washington Strategy Group, a foreign policy consultancy. “You maintain the security relationships and you intensify them, so the security officials are made aware of what’s going on and are confident. At the political level, I don’t know what you can do to change the dynamic.”

He added, “The Israeli leadership will have to make a decision to stop attacking Obama.”  Hey, remember Palestine?

A year ago, the one significant outcome of the failed U.S. effort to broker Israeli- Palestinian peace seemed to be creativity in the epithets that Israeli and American leaders were lobbing at one another.

An unnamed senior Obama administration official called Netanyahu “a chickenshit” in an interview last October with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. The previous January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly described U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as “messianic.”

Working together on peacemaking with the Palestinians as part of a broader regional peace may be a way out of the Iran-centered tensions, said Reshef, who heads Commanders for Israel’s Security, an assembly of former senior Israeli military officers who want Israel to advance a regional peace deal.

“The best thing for Israel, a kind of historical opportunity, is to deal with the mutual relationship with the United States on the one side and with neighboring Arabs on the other side,” he said.  Hire new wingmen.

A key feature of the U.S.-Israel relationship has been designated buddies: Two people who are each as close to their bosses as to one another, and who always pick up when the other’s face pops up on the smartphone.

That’s what Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, was supposed to be when he arrived in the United States—Netanyahu’s right-hand man sent to forge close relationships with top Obama administration officials.

It didn’t work out, to put it mildly. Dermer, who without telling the White House worked with Republicans to set up Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March, is seen by the Obama administration as a partisan. Dan Shapiro, his American counterpart in Tel Aviv, is well regarded by the Israeli political establishment, but is also seen as too closely identified with the Obama administration.  Stop throwing weapons at the region, start throwing ideas.

The Obama administration is pitching weapons upgrades throughout the region as a means of offsetting Iranian mischief, should the Islamic Republic feel empowered by the nuclear deal. Israel is nervous because although it, too, is due to get a bundle of goodies, it fears enhanced military capabilities among neighbors that in the past have been hostile.

“What you have now is an effort to arm the Saudis and other Gulf states,” Schanzer said, “but it erodes Israel’s qualitative military edge”—the U.S. policy of keeping Israel better equipped and prepared than its neighbors.  Get over yourselves, there’s more work to do.

The ongoing problems of the Middle East ultimately may be what forces back together the hard-heads who have fomented the U.S.-Israel crisis. The United States and Israel have common interests in Lebanon, Syria and across the region.

The U.S.-Israel relationship—one that is between stable democracies with a shared interest in fending off Middle Eastern threats—is larger than any differences between Netanyahu and Obama, said Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran adviser in his first term and now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. .

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