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All The World's Indeed A Stage: The Obama-Netanyahu Meeting

Jul 7, 2008
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Though Neil Peart paraphrased it in the Rush classic, “Limelight”, it was William Shakespeare that famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” Looking at Tuesday’s White House meeting between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it appears that what was true in the day of the Bard remains so today.

If this is the case, though, the question must be asked if Obama and Netanyahu are merely players on the world stage, who is the audience? While some may consider it glib or sarcastic, it is one that serious observers of the international arena are ever mindful of. Indeed, it is one I teach my International Relations students to diligently look for.

What are the forces driving the headlines? What messages are hidden in open sight between the lines of a story? If a picture is worth a thousand words, exactly what is it saying?

As I tell my students, actions on the world stage are often directed at both domestic as well as foreign audiences. Tuesday’s meeting is a case in point.

Domestically, both leaders had significant audiences they had to play to, but for distinctly different reasons. For Netanyahu, the objective was two fold.

First, there was the need to clearly demonstrate that the “special relationship” between Washington and Jerusalem endured.

After a Spring that saw Netanyahu denied a White House audience while visiting Washington in April – in retaliation for the Israeli announcement of expanded settlement construction in East Jerusalem during a March visit by US Vice President Joe Biden – and the Obama administration’s embarrassment of being placed between two increasingly antagonistic allies after a botched albeit ultimately successful Israeli interdiction of a Turkish aid flotilla headed for the Gaza Strip, many in both capitals openly wondered if what appeared to be a deepening political separation might give way to an eventual divorce. Were that the case, Israel would effectively find itself alone in what it perceived to be an increasingly hostile neighborhood, forced to confront a rising Iran and its’ proxies and clients without the military and political might of its’ patron, the United States.

Exacerbating the perception of a widening gulf between the two allies is an Israeli political body that increasingly views Obama as being indifferent at best and belligerent or even antagonistic at worst of Jerusalem’s security concerns.

Furthermore, Netanyahu had to demonstrate not only that he could lead Israel, but that he was not a detriment to her in the Oval Office. A critical element of this is the necessity that he is able to defend Israel’s interests and actions without incurring an immediately antagonistic response from the White House.

A corollary to this was the need to assure both Obama and his administration that the self-styled hawk was a rational and reliable partner they could work with. How strong could the “special relationship” be if America’s and Israel’s chief executives openly displayed disdain and contempt for one another? What faith could either place in the others’ word? What influence could either hope exercise over the other?

In contrast, Obama had three audiences he was playing to.

Domestically, Obama needed to reassure Jewish voters that despite a clash of personalities and an exchange of diplomatic slights, America’s – and his own – commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering. With independents abandoning him, Obama sought to reinforce a historically reliable part of the Democratic base in the face of a rising political storm that threatens to return control of at least one, if not both houses of Congress to Republicans come November.

In doing so, not only would he succeed in shoring up a key constituency, he would also deny some of his most ardent and impassioned critics yet another weapon in their already formidable arsenal. Sarah Palin’s assertions not withstanding, one thing he would not be accused of was abandoning Israel to the tender mercies of the Iranian wolves and their pack of proxies – Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria.

Internationally, it was these very same predators that stalk Israel, that Obama’s message was directed.

With reports of Iranian missile transfers to Hezbollah via Syria, tensions have risen significantly in the region. Adding fuel to the rhetorical fire was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s declaration that, “This criminal regime is doomed and the grand victory is imminent,” referring to Israel after dining with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassralah and Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus in February.

Lest they be tempted by the thought they could prey on an isolated Israel with impunity, the message would come personally from the President’s own lips in the seat of America’s unrivaled power. Not only does the “special relationship” endure, it thrives.

Are there differences between the two in terms of priorities and positions on the “road map to peace” and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Certainly, and significant ones at that. Yet, despite them and regardless of personality clashes or unseemly pettiness, Israel’s security remains underwritten and guaranteed by America’s military might and political power.

Finally, Obama sought to squelch the perception among Israelis that he approaches the peace process from a pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli point of view. Were this to remain unchallenged, it would heighten an already growing siege mentality that would preclude any substantive movement whatsoever on critical issues entailed in a final settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While initial reviews would suggest both leaders delivered an acceptable, if uninspired performance, the unspoken issue of Israeli settlement expansion looms ominously in the wings.

In order for Obama to coax the Palestinians back to the bargaining table, he must at the very least obtain an extension of the current suspension on new Israeli construction. Conversely, Netanyahu faces rising pressure from far right members of his coalition to resume settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank once the freeze expires in September. Indeed, nothing less than the survival of the current coalition government and Netanyahu’s Prime Minister-ship is at stake. Reconciling these two diametrically opposed demands will in all likelihood dominate the next act in the decades-long bit of Kabuki theater that is the Middle East peace process.

Enjoy the intermission while you can, faithful readers. One never knows when the curtain will suddenly rise with the next act violently unfolding on the world stage.

Stay tuned for further updates as events warrant and we eagerly watch the action inside the gilded cage.
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