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A Dangerous Dance

Why Obama and Netanyahu want you to think they're on a collision course.

Ariel Sharon had a similar evolution. Serving as defense minister in the 80s, he angered the Reagan administration by launching the first Lebanon War. But as foreign minister in the first Benjamin Netanyahu government in the late 90s, Sharon opened back channels to American officials in the Clinton administration. Later, when Sharon himself became the prime minister, he almost always made sure to be on the same page as the Bush administration.

Netanyahu did not enjoy the luxury of having close and intimate relations with the American president during his first turn as prime minister. He was elected when the Clinton team was rooting for his rival of the Labor Party, Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres, and he was raising his voice against the Oslo Accords much before most people realized its inherent problems.

Netanyahu is now having his second chance at making things work with the Americans, and most bets are against him. Obama and Bibi will be meeting early next week, and “collision course” is among its most common descriptions by experts and pundits--mostly those on both sides of the spectrum who don’t want Obama and Netanyahu to get along. Collision, of course, is possible. The level of apprehension in Israel regarding the possibility of a nuclearized Iran is much higher than the one the U.S. demonstrates, and some Israelis in high office have come to the conclusion that the Obama administration doesn’t show the toughness necessary for stopping it. On the other hand, the Obama team really doesn’t understand what is it that Netanyahu is trying to achieve by what they think is an almost childish refusal to utter the words “two,” “state,” and “solution” in one soothing (even if insincere) sentence.

Thus, there is certainly potential for a tense and unpleasant meeting. And there is also motive as such on both sides: Obama needs to push Netanyahu in order to demonstrate to the rest of the world that the Bush years of nearly total accommodation are over, and Netanyahu needs to push back in order to satisfy the right-wing core of his governing coalition. This will be a delicate performance, danced to the hysterical tune of an Israeli press and an American blogosphere who tend to interpret every minor disagreement as the sign of a looming rift.

But there is little reason to get excited--not yet, at least. Some pretence and masquerading is necessary for both Obama and Netanyahu as they present their agenda and ponder in public the outcome of their meeting. But more than the two of them care to admit, they have surprisingly similar expectations and needs. In essence, they come to the meeting as realists pretending to be something else--Netanyahu the peace-skeptic, Obama the peace-maker.

They both know the “big” truths: Peace with the Palestinians isn’t in the cards any time soon. Peace with Syria seems less likely than both Israel and the U.S. were hoping. (Obama sent his emissaries to Damascus twice in recent weeks, and twice they came back empty handed--resulting in an almost immediate renewal of sanctions and a public reprimand of the Syrian regime for not making enough of an effort to stop the smuggling of terrorists to Iraq.) Both know that Iran is a problem that needs be dealt with in the near future--and Obama knows as much as Netanyahu that this is not “Israel’s problem” but a problem about which Arab leaders are wringing their hands behind closed doors.

But both leaders have their roles to play. Netanyahu needs to maintain the perception that he is hard-nosed enough to risk an attack on Iran’s nuclear-related installations, while Obama needs to back his attempt at “engagement” by showing some willingness to squeeze the Israeli government. Beneath these performances, however, the outlook of these two leaders is much more alike than commonly thought. The meeting between them will be a delicate dance of the inner realist in both: In the updated version of Netanyahu, Obama will find a leader that’s looking for practical solutions for the overwhelming problems he has to deal with. In the post-election version of Obama, Netanyahu will find the leader who still carries the slogan of “change,” but at least in the international arena is quite far from being the wide-eyed na?f that some people had hoped he will be. The tension surely has the potential to explode. But for the time being, it is a dance. And for every couple, as important as this first dance might be, the important question is whether this will be followed by a second dance.

Shmuel Rosner is an editor and columnist based in Tel Aviv. He blogs daily at Rosner’s Domain.

By Shmuel Rosner