Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama were all smiles in front of a sea of cameras at the White House yesterday. The president's press team was not kidding when it told journalists beforehand that the summit would be significantly warmer than Netanyahu's March visit, when Obama upbraided Netanyahu over Israel's Jerusalem policies and refused to snap photographs with him.
In a press conference following some quality face time with the Israeli leader, Obama rejected allegations that the U.S.-Israel relationship was strained as "flat wrong," and signaled that he is increasingly optimistic about the prospects of Palestinian-Israeli peace. Netanyahu, for his part, was simply eager to mend ties with Israel's most important ally.
Still, despite yesterday's warm reception, the two leaders have two different agendas that may clash in the months ahead.
Obama's Goals: The U.S. president needed this meeting for a few reasons: First and foremost, as he heads into November mid-term elections with flagging poll numbers, he needs to show that he isn't out to make nice with dictators and kick our democratic allies in the shins. With American support for Israel still high, Politico's Laura Rozen notes that Democrats on the Hill, "fear that they will suffer with key donors… from the perception that Obama has been too tough on the Israeli leader."
While the president now projects friendship in public, he will continue to squeeze Netanyahu for concessions over Israeli construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Indeed, Obama appears to be wedded to an idea held by his circle of advisors (including Dennis Ross of the National Security Council, according to some reports) known as "linkage." This concept, which is at once untested and misguided, holds Israeli territorial concessions -- whether or not they are in Israel's interests, or yield any reciprocal compromises -- as the key to ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which will in turn help bring an end to jihadist violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other anti-American pockets in the Middle East.
Netanyahu's Goals: The Israeli Prime Minister has very different needs. First and foremost, even though Congress passed sweeping Iran sanctions, Netanyahu needs more. Specifically, he needs a green light from Obama to attack Iran, if it gets much closer to developing a nuclear weapon. But he would settle for a yellow light, too; Israel knows that even if the U.S. sits this one out from a military perspective, it will need Washington's diplomatic cover at the United Nations Security Council and beyond.
Israel has other defense concerns, too. The Israeli Haaretz newspaper reports that Israel seeks to block a deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, under which the Saudis would buy "scores of new F-15 fighter jets."
Netanyahu also hoped to see the diplomatic fruits of his decision to ease Israel's blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Ahead of his Washington trip, Netanyahu took several steps to expand the flow of goods and make it easier for people to enter and leave the area. Netanyahu did this knowing full well that it will make the Hamas terrorist group stronger, enabling it to import weapons more easily and to generate more income in taxes from everything sold in the area under its control. Netanyahu said yesterday that he was taking steps in the "quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians," but his true aim was to build good will with Obama.
In taking these steps, critics will argue, Netanyahu invested more in the U.S.-Israel relationship than in Israeli security.
Peace Process Realities: As Daniel Shapiro, Obama's senior Middle East director at the National Security Council, recently put it: "We believe there are opportunities to further narrow those gaps, to allow the sides to take that next step to direct talks."
The gaps may have narrowed, but they are still too wide to bridge. This is something that Obama will not yet admit. The Palestinians -- both Hamas and Fatah -- still incite violence against Israel on a regular basis. And even if they didn't, the two factions remain locked in a civil war that makes it impossible to identify a legitimate interlocutor for the Palestinian people.
While it is good to see the White House mend fences with Israel, the challenges of the coming months cannot be surmounted with an all-smiles White House photo-op.
Netanyahu invited Obama to visit Israel, presumably to see these challenges from up close. Will Obama accept?