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September 24, 2013 5:07 PM Bibi Wrestles With Himself

By Ed Kilgore

As though Barack Obama doesn’t have enough on his plate in dealing with Syria, Iran and the U.S. Republican Party, he’s scheduled to meet with another unfriendly force-to-be-reckoned-with next week: Bibi Netanyahu. TAP’s intrepid Israeli correspondent Gershom Gorenberg takes a look at this encounter, and suggests Bibi’s actually the one who should be worried since the threads of his own foreign policies are getting very tangled:

Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they are not quite talking to each other. Netanyahu’s goals next week are to get Obama to commit himself to conditions for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that Tehran will reject and to avoid paying with any concessions to America’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Syria will also be on the agenda. As always, Netanyahu will try to get Congress to take his more hawkish stance against the president, with encouragement from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. But there are contradictions—logical, strategic, political, and personal—in Netanyahu’s stance that weaken him even before the conversation with Obama begins.
First, the logical problem: Netanyahu categorically insists that any relatively moderate rhetoric from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is “spin,” obscuring his intentions. The problem is that Netanyahu also insisted that all extreme statements from Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were precise expressions of what he planned to do. By this measuring stick, all Iranians have the same policy and can be trusted only to the extent that they are as crude as Ahmadinejad. Negotiating with Iran is therefore a dangerous waste of time.

You might notice this is precisely the problem with many American politicians—and not just Republicans—in their never-take-yes-for-an-answer approach to Iran.

Gorenberg goes on to note that Netanyahu’s support for military strikes on Syria as a necessary condition for American credibility with respect to both Syria and Iran is a mite incoherent insofar as Obama’s “weak” position has succeeded in bringing both nations to the negotiating table. And Bibi also has to come to grips with the fact that his allies in the U.S. Congress clearly aren’t following his lead towards an attack on Assad.

All in all, Netanyahu is in an unfamiliar position of weakness himself as he meets with Obama:

He truly believes that Israel stands alone and must therefore decide itself on how to deal with Iran—and also that the United States must do what is necessary to protect Israel. The former belief precludes seeking accommodation with Washington; the latter makes accommodation essential, not just on Iran but on the Palestinian issue as well.
Netanyahu, in other words, will arrive at the White House with a strong voice and a set of expectations that don’t hold together. He will arrive in a weaker position than at previous meetings.

No wonder Bibi so manifestly wanted his friend Mitt Romney, whose entire foreign policy seemed to be wrapped up in unconditional support for Israel, to displace Obama in Washington.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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