Watching Obama and Netanyahu deliver their speeches is a good deal like watching two poker players underplay their hand. The game has just begun and both are being very careful in what they do.
Obama wants to grind Israel under, while avoiding the public perception that he is grinding Israel under. So after levering pressure on Israel, Barack Hussein Obama headed off for a photo op at Buchenwald, in what even his great-uncle called a political move.
Obama doesn't actually need the Jewish vote to win in 2012, unless things get so bad that Florida becomes as critical a deciding factor as it was in 2004. And while many prominent ethnically Jewish liberals would stick by Obama, even if he began delivering his speeches in German accompanied by torchlight parades, high profile defections could quickly become inconvenient.
While LA and Chicago have been enamored of Obama, New York has never been. When the always moderate Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations stated that even Obama's strongest Jewish supporters are concerned about his positions on Israel in one interview, and in another stated "I can tell you this: I don’t sleep at night because of some of these issues that have come to the fore", it was a warning sign of just how tenuous support for Obama is among the old line New York Jewish organizations.
New York's political leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have never embraced Obama. His victory came at their expense, by defeating Hillary Clinton. I recall the local Democratic political club agitator handing me an election leaflet with her thumb over Obama's name, telling me, "we don't like him." This animosity only broadened with the sabotage of Obama's princess, Carolyn Kennedy, shot at at New York's Senate seat. This was followed by a backlash to Obama shutting down Rep. Steve Israel's bid to run against Gildenbrand in the Democratic Senate primary election. That makes for fertile political ground in which to cultivate grievances and gives leaders like Hoenlein more boldness when questioning Obama.
On Israel, Obama would like to exceed Carter, without running into Carter's image problems. That means lots of Jewish positive photo ops, and minimizing the public conflicts. The dirty work gets shoveled off onto Hillary, who has a longer history with Jewish groups from her time as a Senator in New York. Above all else, Obama wants to be loved and adored. His public image is all he has, and he has no intention of risking it in a knock out drag down fight with Jewish activists.
Yet no matter how he dressed up his opening round of attack on Israel, the backlash is coming his way.
Netanyahu however faces a terrible dilemma. While Obama can expect to sit in the Oval Office for four years, Netanyahu is leading a coalition of opposites that can come apart at a moment's notice, and leave him with nothing to hold on to. Keeping together a coalition that covers the left wing Labor party, Netanyahu's own conservative Zionist Likud party, the loudmouths at Yisrael Beiteinu and two religious parties... would be no small task even in the best of times. And this is not the best of times.
Virtually any decision Netanyahu makes will alienate a sizable portion of his governing coalition. His only real advantage is that his most troublesome coalition partners are busy squabbling with the non-coalition parties they split with, as best exemplified by Labor's own mini-civil war. Netanyahu's oversized cabinet of 30 ministers and a coalition composed of people who can't stand each other and don't agree on anything is a page taken from Sharon's playbook. Sharon though had a friendly US administration. Netanyahu has the most hostile US administration in history on his back.
Just to make things worse, Israel is experiencing its own economic crisis, and while Netanyahu's experience as a financial reformer should prove invaluable, fiscal reforms mean alienating coalition partners. A coalition combining secular leftists and religious parties contemplating economic reforms is a great deal like a paranoid schizophrenic with multiple personalities trying to order from a menu.
Yet Netanyahu has been doing better than expected. Getting the majority of Israelis to back his stance on natural growth in settlements represents a significant political setback for the Israeli left and the Obama administration. Obama's minions had zeroed in on settlements as the best bet for playing divide and conquer with American and Israeli Jews. They failed badly in Israel, with only the far left backing Obama.
Netanyahu's next step was to deliver a speech laying out the Jewish right to Israel, debunking Obama's Cairo speech, and accepting a two state solution on the same condition that Israel has presented repeatedly, an end to the armed terrorist gangs and their war on Israel.
Here Netanyahu failed to take in the lessons of history, which is that foreign diplomats listen for Israeli concessions while discarding their context. Netanyahu may have been speaking conditionally, but what the press and the Obama Administration heard was an opening concession to a Palestinian Arab state run by Fatah and Hamas terrorists.
The backlash from the right in Israel was inevitable. They had never trusted Netanyahu, and with good cause. His readiness to buckle to Bill Clinton had destroyed his credibility among conservative Zionist activists. His return to power in a coalition with the likes of Barak and Bayit Yehudi was not exactly a ringing endorsement of his bona fides. The destruction of the outposts in response to the Obama Administration, pro forma as it may be, was an ugly start. And his concession to a two-state solution was the final nail in the coffin.
Nevertheless Netanyahu is forced into a complicated balancing act. While the right may favor a more public split with Obama, it is a gamble that Netanyahu is unwilling to take. Such a bold step may break his coalition and do unknown amounts of damage to Israel's economy. Instead Netanyahu underplayed his hand by giving Obama next to nothing, while using his initial refusal to make it seem like a great deal. Netanyahu, as he sees it, has committed to the creation of a Palestinian Arab state that will give up on terrorism. This is likely to happen around the same time that pigs fly over Gaza.
Israeli politicians embracing Obama can't help but marginalize themselves, which will allow Netanyahu to maintain a coalition even in the face of pressure from the White House. Obama's messianic style has always played badly in Israel, a country that likes bottom line, rough and tumble politicians, war heroes and big men who roll up their sleeves and get dirty. In Israel Obama has gone from a curiosity to a hostile figure very quickly. And while the views of a bar of drunken expats on a video circulated via an anti-Israel site are not representative of Israelis as a whole, outside of a handful of yuppies and Haaretz and Jerusalem Post columnists, the view of Obama from Israel trends toward the negative.
Of course to keep it together, Netanyahu has to keep playing for time. His best ally remains the willingness of Hamas and Fatah to sabotage any peace plan by overplaying their hand, and demanding too much. He knows no real American help can be expected on Iran, but he still holds out hope that he can maintain a positive relationship between America and Israel.
And so in the opening match, neither Obama nor Netanyahu are prepared to let hostilities between the two governments go public. Obama is determined to pressure Netanyahu behind the scenes, a tactic that worked extremely well for Bill Clinton. Netanyahu must now show that he is not simply older, but wiser. That he has learned from his mistakes with the Clinton Administration, and will avoid making any concessions on the ground.
That is the way the game has begun and will play out. With Obama facing domestic economic turmoil, Israel becomes an appealing distraction. Netanyahu has to make it clear that targeting Israel will damage Obama's popularity at home, to make his country less of an appealing target for the Prince of Chicago. Maintaining mini-conflicts can drain the Obama Administration's focus and willingness to struggle with Israel. If Netanyahu can do that, he can outplay and outwait Obama. If he can't, he will be facing a much worse repeat of his first administration.