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Bad Cop-Good Cop, Netanyahu Can Help Obama

Bad Cop-Good Cop, Netanyahu Can Help Obama

By David Paul Kuhn - May 18, 2009

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu sit down for the first time today as respective heads of state. The U.S. diplomatic class generally believes the conservative Israeli government undercuts Obama's efforts to engage the Arab world. There is to be a private confrontation between the two men, we are told, of policies and worldviews.

That confrontation is not only unlikely, but Netanyahu could potentially bolster Obama's outreach to Muslim nations while enhancing Israel's long-term security interests.

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The Israeli and American publics, certainly to differing degrees, agree that Iran is a national security threat. Obama is reaching out to Iran as a dove. Netanyahu has explicitly said that if the United States does not stop Iran's progress toward a nuclear bomb, Israel must.

Obama is presented with the role of keeper of the peace. Netanyahu potentially hands Obama diplomatic leverage to negotiate, albeit for only a limited period. Netanyahu can still pursue undisclosed efforts to work toward peace with neighbors like Syria and prepare for the worst with Iran.

Obama has the prospect of appearing a tentatively impartial mediator in the region. That referee role has escaped American presidents for decades because of the U.S-Israeli alliance.

But Obama must tread carefully. He cannot isolate Israel, not only due to the opposition he would face at home but also because an isolated Israel would likely conclude there is no hope for diplomacy.

To succeed, Obama must convince Iran that its current trajectory ensures confrontation. That would leave Iran with two choices. Option one, Israeli hawks. Israel framed as bad cop. Option two, reciprocating Obama's diplomatic outreach. United States framed as good cop.

"Iranians may come to understand that they better deal with the United States. If not, the United States has the option to drop its opposition to Israeli military action," Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in an interview.

"It may actually enhance [the Obama administration's] credibility with the Iranians. We need all the help we can get with the Iranians, [to convince them] that if they don't take our effort seriously there will be severe or serious consequences," Indyk continued. "The effect could be that Israel is the bad cop and that our restraint will apply as long as Iran's serious about engagement ... What you are getting at here are perceptions. And perceptions, especially in the Middle East, are very very important."

Indyk's recently published book, "Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East," chronicles his own sobering experience at the epicenter of the peace process in Bill Clinton's administration. It was during the Clinton years that Netanyahu, in his last turn as prime minister, attempted to bulldoze one president.

After Clinton and Netanyahu met, Clinton remarked, "He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires," top U.S. Middle East advisor Dennis Ross recorded in his memoir.

Today, Netanyahu endures pressure on two flanks. Obama wants to move Netanyahu to specifically endorse a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. That two-state track is opposed by Netanyahu's conservative base. Israelis see little time to act before Iran goes nuclear. Obama wants Israel to give him time.

Obama and Netanyahu understand each other's position. There were preparatory talks between aides. Netanyahu may not utter the big three words, two-state solution, after the meeting. But Netanyahu will also surely not express his opposition to a peace process.

Meanwhile, ahead of Obama's upcoming major address this summer in Egypt, the appearance of Obama pressing the U.S. ally offers the president increased credibility in the Muslim world — no small chit as Obama visits his first Arab nation and tries to thaw relations with Iran.

Obama's diplomatic efforts will also inevitably test doves. Should Obama fail, the hawks in Israel and the United States will gain legitimacy. In other words, due to potential for failure as well as success, Netanyahu has reason to walk with Obama for now. 

Netanyahu is more likely to play ball with the United States than he was in the Clinton years. He has a rare second chance to resolve the central failing of his last turn at history. He can privately insist that Obama confront Iran as a condition of his temporary restraint, while publicly securing his support back home by remaining the hawk close to Obama.

The Palestinian leadership is divided. Iran remains diplomatically schizophrenic. Each of these variables, among many more, could undermine progress. This is Middle East politics. And Obama has decided, like Clinton, to engage.

Obama does inherit a far more complicated Middle East than Clinton. Clinton had an Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who headed a left-leaning government and had leeway to achieve peace. The Soviet Union had fallen, allowing the United States an almost unfettered ability to exert its will in the region.

But progress today is possible. There is the potential for the Nixon goes to China moment for Netanyahu. Hawks are often more capable of attaining peace. This was the case with Rabin. It surely could be the case with Netanyahu.

Ongoing conflict in the Middle East has left the region tired of war. Iran offers the chance to significantly enlarge the problem in order to solve the problem. Once unthinkable coalitions are possible. A potentially nuclear Iran unites Israel with key regional players like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Israel justifiably views Iran as an existential threat. Israelis can live with the absence of peace with Palestine, if there is an absence of war as well. But to Israelis, there is a great price to pay for delay with Iran. Iran will be nuclear in a matter of years.

Obama has months not years to prove he can make progress. Obama's failure would force Netanyahu to face the awful choice—that he does not want to make but will make—of estranging Israel from the world in order to delay its enemy's capacity to destroy Israel.

Israel's potential strike on Iran adds urgency. Iran's nuclear threat to Israel, what a nuclear Iran would do to irretrievably undercut U.S. power in the region, the potential for Iran to arm rogue adversaries with nuclear material, the Arab worlds' anxiety over a nuclear Iran and the regional nuclear arms race that would follow, all intensify this urgency.

That urgency can be beneficial. Concern over the worst outcome can potentially push nations toward the good and hard decisions.

"Fear," Indyk said, "is always a better motivator than hope in the Middle East."

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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