Skip to main content

Don't expect an Obama-Netanyahu blowup

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Obama and Netanyahu have a tense relationship but will need each other's cooperation in the coming years.
Aaron Miller says Obama and Netanyahu have a tense relationship but will need each other's cooperation in the coming years.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Benjamin Netanyahu is headed for third term as Israel's prime minister
  • Aaron Miller: Results of election mean he will likely ally with moderate faction
  • He says that dynamic will reinforce need for close cooperation between Obama, Bibi
  • Miller: The two leaders may not like each other, but they need each other now

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter.

Washington (CNN) -- In the run-up to the Israel elections, two pieces of conventional wisdom were making the rounds among analysts, diplomats and experts: First, Benjamin Netanyahu would win big, and second, the victory would propel him on a collision course with Barack Obama, a second term president seeking to do something serious on the peace issue.

The first proved to be dead wrong. The second will probably follow suit.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

"Bibi" Netanyahu has just been re-elected prime minister, no less for the third time. But don't get out the popcorn and turn out the lights just yet. The sequel to the Obama-Bibi wars isn't about to begin.

Sure, their relationship has been perhaps the most dysfunctional in the history of U.S.-Israeli ties. And there are bound to be plenty of downs in the next several years, particularly if Netanyahu is forced to form a narrow right-wing governing coalition.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



But the U.S.-Israeli relationship is simply too big and important to fail, particularly now.

Netanyahu's party wins but centrists flex muscle, polls show

Indeed, given the real prospects that the new Israeli coalition will include Yair Lapid's centrist party (whose surprise showing of 19 seats may make him a coalition lynchpin) and maybe another moderate faction if Lapid won't sit with other right-wingers in the coalition, the two leaders may have less reason to fight and more reasons to cooperate. Here's why.

Second term illusion

The notion that a second-term president freed from the constraints of re-election will now hammer an Israeli prime minister with a big peace initiative just doesn't add up.

First, there's no precedent for such a thing in American policy toward the Arab-Israeli negotiations. Bill Clinton's push at Camp David in July 2000 -- the precedent most often cited -- came not from Clinton, but at then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak's urging.

Netanyahu's mixed victory in Israel
Netanyahu priority: Prevent nuclear Iran
Israel's economic challenge

Second, it's the presence of opportunity, not the absence of political constraints or the desire to get even and settle scores, that leads a U.S. president to act.

A quick look around and any sentient human being would see that a grand deal between Israelis and Palestinians isn't possible now. Lapid's presence in the coalition may restrain some of the Israeli right's ambitions to expand settlements, but it isn't enough to support a full-scale push toward a comprehensive peace.

Indeed. Lapid's focus was on economic issues and national service, not on negotiations with the Palestinians.

The suspicions between Israelis and Palestinians are too deep, the gaps on the issues too big, and the political houses on each side too divided.

More likely, the new Netanyahu government will focus on some kind of interim accord with the Palestinians. And that leads us to the second reason that a big fight is likely not in the offing.

Why fight about nothing?

Fighting with an Israeli prime minister (and the Arabs, too) is a part of the job description of serious American mediators. But the fight needs to be productive and worth the effort.

Right now, there's nothing to fight about because there's no conceivable Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the offing. You fight when you think there's a way to produce an agreement that would justify the risks of a confrontation, not when you're certain to fail. For Obama, whose domestic agenda will require an enormous expenditure of political capital at home, neither fighting with Republicans and Democrats over pressure on Israel nor launching an initiative that fails is smart politics.

John Kerry needs a friend

We are going to have a new secretary of state who will have responsibility -- assuming he can convince the president to let him handle the issue -- for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. The last thing Kerry wants is a worsening of ties between Obama and Netanyahu that makes it impossible for him to do his job on such a key issue.

If Kerry wants to have a chance of succeeding -- even to manage the problem -- he'll need a relationship with Netanyahu based on some measure of confidence and trust. This is even more important given the absence of such trust between Obama and the prime minister.

Bush 41 and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir didn't get along. James Baker managed to hammer out a working relationship with Shamir, tense at times but functional. Without it, there would have been no Madrid peace talks.

If Kerry is smart, he'll keep the door to Netanyahu open and try to see if he can't reach some understanding with the prime minister. If he can't, there will be plenty of time to fight later.

The Iranian Issue

The big reason why Bibi and Obama will likely have a stake this time around in more cooperation and less friction is Iran. The fact is neither Obama, the mullahs, nor Netanyahu wants a war over the nuclear issue. But avoiding one will require the closest of cooperation between Jerusalem and Washington.

There's an expectation that 2013 will be the year of decision on the Iranian nuclear issue. Maybe yes, maybe no. But that expectation alone will require intimate coordination to prevent a unilateral Israeli strike, to see whether diplomacy can produce an Iranian-American deal and to determine whether it can be sold to Israel.

If not, and no diplomatic fix to the nuclear issue is possible, American-Israeli understandings will be required on a military option. Either way, neither the United States nor Israel can avoid a public falling out over Iran or a major split over how to manage the problem.

Simply put, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too big to fail. That doesn't mean there won't be real differences over settlements, for example, that won't cause friction.

But on the two biggest issues of the day, how to manage Iran and the Palestinians, there can't be solutions without close Israeli-American cooperation.

It's legacy time. This is Obama's last term as president and perhaps Netanyahu's last term as prime minister. Obama doesn't want to be the U.S. president on whose watch Iran crossed the nuclear weapons threshold and certainly neither does Bibi want to be the Israeli prime minister held responsible.

It would be nice to imagine that the two can sit down and reach a broad strategic understanding -- first we deal with Iran, and if we succeed through diplomacy or even war, then let's find a way to preserve the two-state option for Israel and the Palestinians.

But even if this doesn't happen, these two leaders are inexorably bound together. They're never going to love each other. But I'm betting they'll find a way to get by without a major fight neither wants. The fact is the protection of Israeli and American interests and regional stability in a volatile, turbulent Middle East depends on it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT