The Odd Couple

Friday 13/11/2015
Loveless marriage filled with bitterness

It is no secret that US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cannot stand each other personally, yet they remain fated to work together in a cynical relationship that neither wants but both need and cannot escape.

The two men resemble a loveless marriage filled with bitterness, insults and recriminations, which yet provides a mysterious sustenance for both parties.

Israel obviously needs the more than $3 billion a year it receives in military aid from the United States plus the continuing US diplomatic support, especially at the United Nations, without which Israel would face potentially catastrophic isolation.

For his part, Obama needs Israel and its well-financed and formidably organised supporters in the United States, too.

With US grand strategy against the Islamic State (ISIS) in tatters, the last thing Obama wants or needs is to hand his Republican critics the charge that he is “weak” on Israel as well.

Also US policymakers are at a loss about what to do about ISIS. However, they at least recognise that their traditional allies — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey — need to be militarily strong to withstand the waves of destabilisation, chaos and revolution that feckless US policies helped unleash by smashing the state structures of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

For Obama, keeping Israel strong against the threats of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas fits into this strategy.

In fact, for all their mutual loathing, Obama and Netanyahu are far more alike than either would want to admit.

Both have presided with considerable skill over sustained economic recoveries in countries that had previously gone through hair-raising crises.

Both are unrivalled at winning elections despite being widely hated by some and seen as intensely polarising figures.

Both have always put domestic political considerations ahead of long-term diplomatic or strategic ones.

Both put out smokescreens of aggressive, confident language but behind the hot air, both — up to now, at least — have exercised restraint and reluctance to commit major ground forces to long-term conflicts.

Both use air power freely and neither is squeamish about inflicting thousands of civilian casualties.

Most of all, they are stuck with each other. Netanyahu never expected Obama to coast home to re-election in 2012 with a 5 million-vote majority. Obama and experts never expected Netanyahu would bury the Israeli Labour Party and other rivals so completely in the elections in March.

Netanyahu revelled in his imagined triumph over the US president. But not for long: The very next month, the Israeli PM’s much vaunted speech to a joint session of the US Congress trying to wreck the Iran nuclear deal did not even scratch political support for it.

Netanyahu will not deliver to Obama any progress at all on the two-state solution or any prospect of real peace with the Palestinians. And Obama has not retreated an inch on implementing the Iran nuclear deal.

Neither leader will forgive or forget the many slights each has endured at the other’s hands. But as experienced and immensely successful political operators, they will hold their noses, shut their mouths and pretend to respect their partners.

Obama and Netanyahu have no hopes or illusions left about each other but they have nowhere else to go either.

The Odd Couple endures.