It's true that the president doesn't emote on many policy issues, with the possible exception of health care. But on Israel, he just doesn't buy the "tiny state living on the knife's edge with the dark past" argument -- or at least it doesn't come through in emotionally resonant terms. As the Washington Post's Scott Wilson reported, Obama doesn't believe the "no daylight" argument -- that is, to get Israel to move, you need to make the Israelis feel that America will stand by it no matter what. Quite the opposite: Obama appears to believe that Israel needs to understand that if it doesn't move, the United States will be hard pressed to continue to give it complete support.
In this respect, when it comes to Israel, Obama is more like Jimmy Carter minus the biblical interest or attachment, or like Bush 41 minus a strategy. My sense is that, if he could get away with it, the president would like to see a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is not just less exclusive, but somewhat less special as well.
No Common Project
Right-wing Israeli leaders have found ways to cooperate quite closely with American presidents in the past. But this time around, it's not so easy.
There are just no good answers to the region's problems. The peace process is stuck, and Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon seems impervious to sanctions or diplomacy. The Arab world is going through changes that will introduce even more uncertainty into Israeli calculations and make risk-taking on the peace process less likely. And as the president might say, let's be clear: Netanyahu is not going to offer the Palestinians a deal on Jerusalem, borders, or refugees that they will accept. Indeed, on the issue of a peace settlement, Obama's views are much closer to the Palestinians than to Israel.
The Iranian nuclear issue could still push the two countries closer together, even though they differ on the urgency of the threat and how to deal with it. If Israel should strike and the Iranians hit back, America will be most likely drawn in and engaged on Israel's side. Alternatively, if the United States attacks, we could see another Gulf War scenario, where the Americans plead with the Israelis to stay out even if provoked.
There's almost no scenario involving a military strike against Iran -- even if the Israelis struck without American approval -- that wouldn't create a need for intimate cooperation. However it plays out, Israel and the United States could easily find themselves in the same boat, and Obama and Netanyahu would be forced to work together closely as a result.
Short of that, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is in for a turbulent period. There will be no transformative moment here for the two main players. If Obama had a wish regarding Israel, it would be that anyone -- Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert -- replace Bibi. And when Bibi blows out the candles on his next birthday, he'll be wishing that Mitt Romney defeats Obama in November.
It's fascinating to consider that in the two most recent cases where American presidents clashed with Israeli prime ministers -- Carter and Bush 41-- both were defeated. Shamir also lost to Rabin in 1992, after clashing with Bush the elder. History could repeat itself in the case of both Obama and Netanyahu -- but what will be more intriguing and entertaining, however, is what happens if they both survive to go another round. Buckle your seat belts. It may be a wild ride.