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Does ‘When Bibi met Barack’ have a happy ending?

Aides to Benjamin Netanyahu, left, projected as the winner in Tuesday's Israeli elections, say he has "chemistry" with President Obama, but there are reasons for tension between them. (Brian Hendler)

Aides to Benjamin Netanyahu, left, projected as the winner in Tuesday’s Israeli elections, say he has “chemistry” with President Obama, but there are reasons for tension between them. (Brian Hendler)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — When Bibi met Barack there was chemistry, the story goes.

Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the once and possible future Israeli prime minister, first met then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in a private meeting in 2007, during one of Netanyahu’s stateside visits. It was clear, Netanyahu aides later told reporters, that the two men one day would assume roles on the world stage.

The pair met a second time last July, in Jerusalem, and both with their country’s top jobs in their sights. Obama had secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, while Netanyahu had revived his Likud Party from a rump and was leading in polls to succeed the scandal-tainted Ehud Olmert, who would announce his resignation as prime minister days later.

Obama won his race in November, and Netanyahu’s campaign took on Obama’s hues, adopting the slogan of "change" for Israel and erecting a campaign Web site that mimicked Obama’s.

Or so the story goes.

This version, accurate if not quite complete, is being peddled behind the scenes in Washington by those keen on seeing a smooth relationship between Jerusalem and Washington if Netanyahu becomes Israel’s prime minister, which remains a possibility after the right wing’s strong showing in Tuesday’s election. Netanyahu and Obama may not agree on the details, they say, but like any successful couple they see eye to eye when it comes to the big picture.

But tune out the toasts and listen to the gossip, and it becomes clear that this marriage could end with broken dinnerware.

If Netanyahu becomes prime minister, this will be his second time around, and survivors from his 1996-99 dalliance with the Clinton administration are not only around, they are members of Obama’s new administration.

Dennis Ross, President Clinton’s top Middle East peace negotiator, is expected take up a Middle East policy overseer slot at the State Department — headed, as it happens, by Hillary Clinton, the former first lady.

Look up "Netanyahu, Binyamin (Bibi) — personal qualities" in Ross’ mammoth 2004 account of his struggle for peace, "The Missing Peace," and on page 260 Ross describes the Israeli prime minister as "nearly insufferable" in his first meeting with Clinton.

"After Netanyahu was gone, President Clinton observed, ‘He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do what he requires,’ " Ross writes. "No one on our side disagreed with that assessment."

It doesn’t stop there: In his dealings with Ross, Netanyahu comes across as needy, manipulative, unreliable and perhaps worst of all, a party pooper. At the end of the exhausting 1998 Wye River negotiations, Ross reflects on Netanyahu’s constant moving of the goal posts, including a sudden last-minute demand for the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

"Bibi has already robbed us of the joy of reaching agreement," Ross tells an associate.

Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time Netanyahu was first elected, and now an informal adviser to Hillary Clinton, is no kinder. He describes in "Innocent Abroad," his just published account of the Clinton years, how Clinton and his staff eagerly hoped for Netanyahu’s defeat in 1996. Clinton resented Netanyahu in part because as Israeli opposition leader, he had agitated in Congress against Clinton’s support of the Rabin-Peres talks with Syria.

Indyk calls Netanyahu’s term "the winter of our peace process discontent."

Some of these resentments have been assumed by the Obama team. Obama himself, meeting with Jewish leaders in Cleveland a year ago, described "a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel."

Centrist pro-Israel insiders say Netanyahu has matured in the interim and has foresworn the clumsy attempts at interference in the U.S. political system that characterized his first term, including openly courting Clinton’s evangelical enemies. Additionally, Obama and Netanyahu genuinely get along, unlike Clinton and Netanyahu, who never clicked.

Furthermore, these insiders argue, Netanyahu’s bottom-up approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking parallels that of Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser. Both have said in recent interviews that they favor building infrastructure before advancing to final-status talks.

"We must fundamentally improve the lives of our Palestinian neighbors so that they have a stake in peace," Netanyahu told the Chicago Tribune recently. "We need to help Palestinians expand their middle class, strengthen their civil society and provide hope for a better future."

Obama’s envoy to the region, George Mitchell, appears to be adopting that cautious approach.

Possible differences loom, however.

In the previous Bush administration, Jones was the patron of the rehabilitation of Palestinian armed forces in the West Bank; Netanyahu is adamant about demilitarization. In the past, Mitchell has emphasized a settlement freeze; acceding would infuriate much of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, never mind any right-wing parties he brings with him into his government.

Differences are emerging as well on Iran, the very issue that supposedly brought Obama and Netanyahu together. Netanyahu favors aggressive containment, while Obama in his first major presidential news conference Monday emphasized dialogue.

"My national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them," Obama said. "And my expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face-to-face diplomatic overtures, that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction."

Netanyahu vexes his interlocutors with an agile eagerness to impress that sometimes appears to spill over into dissembling. In 2005, as finance minister, he visited the U.S. Senate to pitch his plan for a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. He cast the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as principal beneficiaries of the plan through increased trade and employment, and the senators lapped it up.

Just minutes earlier, in the same conference room, he had told Israeli reporters in Hebrew that as far as he was concerned the Palestinians could take or leave participation in the project — they were marginal to its success. The fact that both conversations were on the record didn’t appear to faze him a bit.

Such maneuvering could trip up Netanyahu, says Yoram Peri, a Tel Aviv University political scientist who is a visiting professor at American University in Washington.

"That’s his personality," Peri said. "The major problem of Netanyahu is Bibi; in Israel, the question we ask is, ‘Will Netanyahu be able to tame Bibi?’ "

A dovish pro-Israel insider concurred, saying that Democrats in the Obama administration and in the Congress are wary of Netanyahu.

"He’s not coming to a Washington that thinks highly of him, on ether side of Pennsylvania Avenue," the insider said. "Republicans are wowed by him — but they’re not in power anymore."

Others said personality issues might be subsumed by the kind of government Netanyahu cobbles together. If he includes Kadima and Labor in a centrist coalition, he might be able to break with some of the doctrines of the past. The same would not be true of a coalition with hawkish parties.

"Netanyahu allowed himself to be boxed in in the 1990s" by the right wing, said David Makovksy, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Should he get a shot at forming Israel’s next government, Makovsky said, Netanyahu should focus on where he wants to take the country when assembling his coalition.

"The coalition should reflect the mission, not the other way around," Makovsky said.

Peri said Netanyahu would be unlikely to stray too far from Likud doctrine when it comes to the Palestinians, considering the rise of hard-liners within the party. Instead, he suggested, a Netanyahu administration might make headway with Syria. Though Netanyahu has expressed opposition to the Israel-Syria talks revived last year, saying now is not the time to give up the Golan heights, Netanyahu came close to making such a deal when he was prime minister.

"If he wants to contain a clash with Washington" over its aggressive pursuit of peace, Peri said, "it’ll be easier for him to support discussions with Syria.”

Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said interactions between Netanyahu and Obama may be beside the point. The determining factor in the Middle East, he said, is not the personality of the occupant of the White House but the realities of the region.

"What every Israeli government finds when it takes the reins is the same reality: the same West Bank, the same Iran, the same Gaza, the same Arab world," Nir said. "Campaign slogans aside, it has to deal with that reality."

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