February 11, 2009
Bibi and Barack: Make Me a Match?By Michael M. Rosen
For many Israelis, this week's elections too closely resembled the old joke about service on El‑Al, Israel's national airline: the flight attendant asks the customer whether he would like dinner; the customer responds "What are my choices?"; the flight attendant replies "Yes or no."
Such, essentially, were the choices facing the Israeli electorate: four candidates, each problematic for different reasons. Ehud Barak, leader of the leftist Labor party, repudiated by Israelis in 2001 when Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud party trounced Labor. Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, current Likud head, soundly defeated by Barak's Labor back in 1999. Tzipi Livni, of the centrist Kadima party, the successor to the deeply unpopular, lame-duck Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. And, finally, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hawkish, immigrant-centric Yisrael Beiteinu party, a fire-breather who attracted international scrutiny for vowing to impose a "citizen loyalty" bill in the new Knesset that critics charge unfairly singles out Israeli Arabs.
And, indeed, Israelis had a tough time making their choice. Livni unexpectedly edged Netanyahu, with Kadima capturing 28 seats to Likud's 27 in Israel's 120-seat Parliament. But the rightist parties, taken as a whole, vanquished the center-left ones by some 10 seats, and it seems likely that Netanyahu, not Livni, will assemble the coalition that will govern the Jewish state.
But will the newly-elected, right-leaning Israeli Prime Minister get along with the newly-inaugurated, left-leaning American president?
At first glance, the answer would seem to be probably not. During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama made headlines by calling out Bibi's party by name: "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel."
While it was unsurprising that a liberal Democrat like Obama didn't share the nationalist philosophy of Israel's leading right-wing party, it was unusual for a candidate in one country to criticize a political party in another.
As journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner put it, imagine if during the Israeli campaign, Netanyahu had said something like "there are people who claim that I need to accept a Democratic nominee as friendly toward Israel -- but this is not necessarily true, as I think the policies of the Republican Party are much wiser." Not a great way to kick off a key relationship.
On policy matters, Netanyahu and Obama can also be expected to differ. The American president has signaled a willingness to engage directly with Hamas, an approach to which the Israeli leader has taken strong exception. Bibi clashed with President Clinton over the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and it's likely that his worldview will again come into conflict with a Democratic administration.
Obama has also indicated his openness to negotiating with Iran, most recently at his first press conference as president. But Netanyahu-who opposes, as a matter of principle, engaging a country sworn to Israel's destruction-has urged the president to limit the scope of any such talks, to insist the Islamic Republic dismantles its nuclear program, and to delay any discussions until after this summer's Iranian presidential elections. Obama's apparent determination to show appropriate "respect" to Iran will probably give Bibi fits.
Their ideological differences extend into the financial realm as well. An MIT MBA, Netanyahu also proved a dogged supply-sider while Finance Minister in the early 2000's, successfully deregulating giant swaths of the Israeli economy and sparking several years of four-percent-plus GDP growth. His economic philosophy thus seems at loggerheads with Obama's Euro-style, statist approach.
But there's also reason for optimism. For one thing, during the campaign, Netanyahu cribbed several pages from Obama's successful electoral playbook. Bibi's website and sloganeering closely mirrored Obama's approach, prompting a New York Times article expressing the requisite alarm at the similarities. "Yes We Can" was replaced with "Be-yachad Natzliach" - "Together We Will Prevail" - plastered on a background and layout strikingly similar to Obama's prominent site. A senior Netanyahu strategist acknowledged that "imitation is the greatest form of flattery."
Bibi's campaign tapped other Web 2.0 mainstays, establishing a 5,000-strong Facebook group and thousands more Twitterers. It tapped the Obaman "change" mantra by "label[ing] Ms. Livni as a continuation of the status quo and Mr. Netanyahu as the candidate of change," as aides told the Times. Even though the change that Bibi will bring differs markedly from Obama's, the framing and context are strikingly parallel.
Other similarities abound. A thoroughgoing right-winger, Netanyahu vigorously courted support from the center-left during the campaign. In a surprising move, Yuval Rabin, son of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, announced the day before the election during a press conference with Bibi that despite his preference for Labor, he would back a national unity government headed by Likud.
Netanyahu also underwent a minor "Sister Souljah" moment shortly before the election when he announced that he would not invite Lieberman to become his defense minister. In belittling language, Bibi declared that "Lieberman will not be defense minister - this position is very important." This decision-and language-aimed simultaneously to shore up Netanyahu's standing at the expense of a popular rival and to put the far-right on notice that he won't cave to its every demand.
Finally, there's some evidence that the two leaders may get along on a personal level. Dore Gold, a member of Bibi's inner circle and Israel's former UN ambassador, described to the Times a warm relationship between the two leaders based on previous encounters in 2007 and 2008. "I was at both meetings, and it was clear that the two leaders established a very good chemistry very quickly," he said. "We are convinced that the Obama administration will be open to hearing new ideas from Israel on how to make progress in the region."
Indeed, Netanyahu's chief peace process argument is that true physical and political coexistence between Israel and the Palestinians will come about only through financial well-being. Bibi believes that further concessions by Israel at this moment would only embolden the worst elements in Palestinian society, while steady, mutual economic expansion will sap the lifeblood of Islamic extremism. Perhaps this argument would be more compelling absent a global recession, but it may nonetheless prove the only path to a true peace.
So while in most ways, Netanyahu and Obama seem far less well-suited for one another than Barak and Barack would have been, a political partnership between the two isn't out of the question. The American-Israeli relationship is, in today's parlance, "too big to fail," and both leaders will have little choice but to do all they can to preserve it.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and Republican activist in San Diego. He lived in Israel from 1994-95 and 1999-2000.