Voice

When Bibi Didn't Meet Barack

Why the American president and the Israeli prime minister just can't get along.

I understand that Israel is in a tough spot on the Iranian nuclear issue. I live in Chevy Chase and don't have to worry about Iranian nukes falling on my neighborhood. I don't want to trivialize Israel's fears.

And from Netanyahu's perspective, those fears are in the process of being realized. Negotiations, at least in the short term, won't stop Iran from continuing its quest for a nuclear bomb. The fact is that apart from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, four states have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. All are profoundly insecure, and some harbor visions of themselves as great powers. Iran, of course, is the poster child for both insecurity and grandiosity. In fact, had the shah not been overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran would have already been a nuclear weapons state.

And on top of all this, Netanyahu believes he's not getting the kind of support and understanding from his "good friend" President Barack Obama that he feels Israel needs. The clock is ticking, the centrifuges are spinning, Israel's window of advantage for a military strike is closing, and Iran's "zone of immunity" is nearing.

So what's a guy to do?

Thus far, Bibi's response has been to lash out. Netanyahu criticized the United States on Sept. 11, of all days, for failing to lay down "red lines" on Iran's nuclear program that, if crossed, would prompt U.S. military action. He was presumably responding to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that the United States was "not setting deadlines" for a military response to Iran. "Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," Bibi warned. The rise in tensions -- which were made only worse by reports, later denied, that the White House had turned down Netanyahu's request for a meeting with the president -- prompted an hour-long conversation between Obama and Netanyahu that same night, as the two leaders tried to get back on the same page on Iran.

Netanyahu's broadside -- whatever its intent -- has produced three reactions. And none of them help Israel or the United States.

First, this entire exchange has brought an issue that should have remained behind closed doors into public view. Asked to comment on red lines, Clinton should have simply said that the United States and Israel were discussing these matters privately. The United States is not prepared to strike Iran anytime soon. And frankly, neither is Israel -- not before the U.S. elections on Nov. 7 nor likely by year's end.

Every Israeli red line seems to have turned pink, anyway. Every few months, the media is full of anonymous Israeli sources warning portentously about an imminent strike -- and so far, they have all proved to be false alarms. The more it threatens military action and doesn't produce, the less street cred Israel has in a region where it wants to be feared and respected. If the United States and Israel want to talk red lines, do it in private -- that's where they become real and serious.

Second, it makes no sense to air U.S.-Israeli differences publicly. It sends a signal to America's friends and enemies alike that the relationship is weak and dysfunctional. And the message it sends to Iran is particularly counterproductive: Don't worry.

Third, Netanyahu's remarks could be construed as an effort to intervene in American politics. Let's be clear: Israel and the United States have been intervening in one another's politics for years. And while I don't think the Israeli prime minister had that motivation this time, the timing of these remarks -- 50-odd days (and they will be odd) before the big dance -- will be seen by some as a transparent effort to embarrass and corner Obama, or to actually sway the views of American Jews. Obama bears his fair share of responsibility for screwing up the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but this perceived intervention by Bibi could do major damage. The last thing Israel needs is an angry second-term president who believes his Israeli counterpart played an active role in trying to defeat him. It's unseemly and counterproductive.

The Iranian nuclear issue is complicated enough without two close allies bickering in public about what to do about it. I must say -- having watched American presidents and Israeli premiers since Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin -- that this has to be the most dysfunctional pair I've seen. Since both leaders may well be around for some time to come, let's hope they can find a better way to cooperate. The risks to American and Israeli interests will be too great if they don't.

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Reality Check

Why Obama Will Win

Whatever his failings, the president is likeable enough -- and incumbency is a powerful home-court advantage.

I love presidential trivia. And here's a piece that's going to make all the true believers gathered this week in Charlotte happy.

Should Barack Obama be reelected this November, it will be only the second time in American history we've had three two-term presidents in a row. You have to go way back -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe -- to ferret out the first and only such presidential trio.

Big deal, you say. Isn't this just another one of those mindless bits of presidential 411 that don't add up to much -- or anything at all? And the presidential scholars and political scientists who do this stuff for a living might agree with you, writing this trend off as irrelevant.

After all, what could we possibly conclude from a set of three presidents -- in this case, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? A set of three can't have any statistical or empirical validity or relevance, can it?

Probably not. But I still think it holds the key to why Obama is likely to be reelected. And here's why I think this is one of the more meaningful bits of info cluttering up the presidential trivia attic.

First, incumbents have a big advantage, particularly against a weaker rival. With all of the bells and whistles of the modern presidency, and the respect, however grudging, most Americans continue to show toward the leader of the free world, running for president from the White House instead of a campaign bus in Iowa helps a lot.

After all, it isn't for nothing that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the real presidency -- The West Wing -- once described the White House as the greatest home-court advantage in the world. Since 1980 -- that's 30-plus years, folks -- only one American president (still one of my favorites, though, George H.W. Bush) failed to gain a second term.

Second, presidents who are likeable, sentient beings have the edge. Clinton's political skills rivaled Reagan's; George W. Bush's regular-guy image trumped Al Gore's stiff public persona. And while Obama can be too professorial and detached -- both compared with Mitt Romney and in his own right -- he's a natural on the stump.

But it's more than that. Our politics are in crisis -- driven by deep political divisions, a dysfunctional Congress, and a 24/7 media that both mirrors and perpetuate the circus-like atmosphere that is the American political arena. We are uncertain, worried, and anxious about the economy and our nation's future.

As we watch all of this craziness in our politics, we crave not just certainty and stability, but hope as well. And so we seek out a measure of that stability in the only national institution that all Americans help shape -- the presidency.

Indeed the presidency has become the last bastion and repository of our willingness to give second chances in the hope that somehow things will get better. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were reelected for very different reasons, but both received this benefit of the doubt: Clinton gained a second term despite character issues because economic times were good; Bush was reelected because he showed strength and character in the wake of 9/11, when times were bad.

Neither commander in chief will ever get into the presidential hall of fame. They were deeply flawed and imperfect men. And they were not great presidents, even though at times they could be great at being president.

If those two leaders could be reelected, it is not a stretch to believe that Barack Obama will ultimately prevail over Mitt Romney. Our current president will benefit from this trend -- and despite their disappointment with many aspects of his performance, enough Americans will stay with a likeable if only slightly above average president who was dealt a very tough hand.

Whether or not this is the best thing for the country remains an open question. But given the impossible challenges we confront and our dearth of national leaders, it may well be the way Americans will now choose their presidents.

So Mr. President, your remark to Diane Sawyer in January 2010 -- that you'd rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre eight-year man -- isn't happening. Your challenge is going to be to avoid being a mediocre two-termer.

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