Bibi and Obama in Love?

Their words couldn’t be more loving and laudatory, but the deeds that lie ahead will challenge this week’s bliss, says Leslie H. Gelb.

03.22.13 8:45 AM ET

Who would have thought it possible? Only in the Holy Land, home to miracles, could we gaze upon Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu embracing President Obama, the very man he bludgeoned publicly and tried to help defeat in the U.S. elections last November. Obama, who previously had no clue about the kind of love Israelis needed, effectively reciprocated with policy words to make Bibi blush. These words are good and smart, perhaps even designed to buffer the knocks that lie ahead when Obama must make decisions that will probably rattle Bibi on Syria and chemical weapons, Iran, and peace talks with the Palestinians.

This high drama took a temporary back seat as Obama paid a dutiful visit to the West Bank and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. There, he made modest protestations about a two-state solution, one Jewish, one Palestinian, and about future negotiations to that end. Then, he rolled back to Israel, where he appreciated Israel’s precious Dead Sea Scrolls (the earliest known books of the Hebrew Bible) and then to the memorial for Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism and Israel as the home for the Jewish people. He will also visit Yad Vashem, the memorial to Jews who perished in the Holocaust. These are the sacred sites for Israel and for a U.S. president to show his love, the touchstones for anyone who truly understands the aching and insecurity of ever-persecuted Jews and the home they refound in Israel.

The first test of this new love will come with Syria, and here’s how. If it’s proven that President Assad did use chemical weapons this past week, Obama’s credibility is frontally on the line. He said that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line” and a “game changer.” If that means anything, Obama must respond decisively, with U.S. military force against Assad’s regime. If he fails to do so, the Israelis will lose faith that Obama will enforce his other “red line,” not permitting Iran to have nuclear weapons. Nothing is more likely to drive Israel toward a unilateral attack against Iran than a loss of faith in Obama’s commitment to supposed “red lines.”

On the surface, the remarks of both Obama and Bibi regarding Iran brought the two partners closer than ever. Obama reiterated his pledge to “prevent” Iran from possessing nukes, and to do “what is necessary” to that end. Above all, he reinforced what Bibi most longed to hear—that Washington considered the issue of attacking Iran to be a decision to be made by Israelis for Israel, as they see fit. Bibi smooched back a little by saying that maybe he had put the date where Tehran would actually manufacture a nuke a bit too early. Instead of this summer, he said, it looked like it would indeed take about a year.

This gave Obama more breathing room for his clear preference for a “diplomatic” solution. He is much more drawn to this than Bibi is, and won’t abandon lightly heretofore unpromising efforts at talks. But later on, despite this week’s smiles and nods, Bibi will fully register Obama’s extended commitment to diplomacy, and he won’t be happy. Israeli hawks will be disturbed as they digest the likely circumstance that Obama has a different definition from theirs regarding what constitutes “getting” nuclear weapons. Israel doesn’t want Iran to come close to meshing highly enriched uranium with usable warheads in a missile. The U.S. appears to be somewhat more tolerant of the pieces just sitting there, separately. Expect Israeli-American clashes on this “immunity zone” in no more than six months.

Finally, there is the matter of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In Israel, Obama went further than ever in trying to placate Bibi’s position. The president said that the issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the hottest button for Palestinians, should not be dealt with in advance of negotiations, as the Palestinians demand, but should be placed on the table only after the negotiating groundwork has been set. Indeed, almost everything Obama has said on this trip backpedals on his earlier priority of freezing those settlements. This is a body blow to Abbas and his supporters that can be assuaged only by a real Washington push for negotiations, one that involves U.S. positions disliked by Bibi and bound to cause moaning among many Israelis. Almost inevitably, regardless of Obama’s words this week, Washington will find itself twisting Israeli arms on negotiations.

You could hear the moral imperatives behind Obama’s future pressures on Israel to make negotiating compromises in the moving speech he delivered to younger Israelis on Thursday.

So Israelis and Americans hearing seductive sonatas on this visit need brace themselves for the inevitable deeds in the offing. When tougher actions come from Washington, however, the sonatas will help both parties cope. Now, all except the diehard anti-Obamaites should see that the U.S. president finally has grasped how to love Israelis the way they need to be loved.