In the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama's reelection victory, some have suggested that he will pursue a feud against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, given the two leaders' disagreements over how to pursue peace with the Palestinians and deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.
There is no denying that the relationship between the two leaders has been rocky. Yes, Obama believed Netanyahu had wrongly lectured him about borders in front of the media in the Oval Office in May 2011. Netanyahu has his own grievances: He was upset that he could not get a September meeting with the president to discuss Iran, for instance. As Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai put it the day after the U.S. election, "It seems like it is not such a good morning for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu."
While it is safe to assume Netanyahu personally preferred Mitt Romney, he in fact did not endorse Obama's Republican challenger -- despite every Israeli reporter's efforts to entice him into doing so. As one Netanyahu aide put it privately, when it comes to the U.S. election, "our room to maneuver on this issue has the width of dental floss."
But at the end of the day, a settling of scores between Obama and Netanyahu is unlikely. It is counterproductive for the two leaders to focus their energies on the past when they are confronted by an array of challenges that will require them to work together.
Obama's cerebral style toward foreign leaders made Israelis skeptical of him, in part because it was a departure from the bear-hug style of President Bill Clinton. But it is also one reason the United States and Israel will now avoid a public feud. As Dan Shapiro, Obama's former top White House aide and current U.S. ambassador to Israel, told a panel in Tel Aviv on Nov. 7, "The president is a strategic thinker; his policies are not governed by emotion." He termed talks of Obama taking revenge against Netanyahu "ridiculous."
Too much is at stake for both countries to let old grudges dictate policy. It is no secret that the Obama administration views a new diplomatic initiative toward Tehran as integral to its sanctions policy. The potent international sanctions currently in place, combined with diplomacy, are the world's one hope of solving the Iran nuclear crisis peacefully. Nobody can guarantee that Iran will back off from its program, but a U.S.-led offer is still inevitable to test that proposition.
And Israel knows this. Contrary to perception, Netanyahu would also like to see a peaceful end to the crisis -- there is no Gen. Curtis LeMay figure in the Israeli government out to firebomb Iran. Whether it is in the format of bilateral U.S.-Iran talks or the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany), the United States will want Israel on board with U.S. diplomatic efforts to avoid the prospect of an Israeli strike. This does not give Netanyahu any kind of veto over the U.S. offer to Iran, but it is hard to imagine that the United States would not welcome Israel's thoughts to ensure that the two countries do not act at cross-purposes.
This process will test the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu like no other foreign-policy issue -- and it will leave no time for petty score settling. Israel and the United States are going to need to be in closer consultation than ever about Obama's highest foreign-policy priority: namely, ensuring that Iran does not go nuclear and that a nuclear arms race does not break out in the region. Failure would mean the end of Obama's plans to promote nuclear nonproliferation, and it would also cripple U.S. credibility after three administrations -- Democrat and Republican alike -- have vowed that Iran will not get the bomb.