Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in town for a Monday meeting with President Obama as part of a three-day day trip during which he'll also speak to congressional leaders, American Jewish groups, and think tanks.
He's got his work cut out for him. First, he's trying to get the relationship with President Obama back on track after a disastrous 2015 and more broadly mend fences with the Democratic Party. He also needs to demonstrate to Israelis that their country's relationship with the US is back on track, and try to come to an understanding with the Americans about what they want out of Israel on the Palestinian issue.
It's a big agenda. Here's a guide to why Netanyahu has so much on his plate, how he's going to try to accomplish it, and what his chances are of succeeding.
Netanyahu and Obama: a return to normalcy?
During Netanyahu and Obama's Monday meeting, there will be a lot of policy issues on the table:
- The Israelis want more security aid, which they say is necessary in the wake of the Iran deal. They're angling for a massive increase: from roughly 3 billion dollars a year to roughly 5. An American official told the Forward that they'd likely get 4.
- Netanyahu will also want to discuss the broader terms in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two countries. That's a document that dictates what the US actually gives to Israel in defense aid; it expires in 2017.
- They'll likely also discuss Iran, Russia, and Syria.
This is a fairly normal agenda for a meeting between allies: negotiating the terms of their relationship and working out a joint approach to mutual challenges and enemies. And that, according to experts on the US-Israel relationship, is the entire point.
"The biggest objective, that I think both Bibi [Netanyahu] and Obama share, is no drama for the next 12 months," Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Obama official on Israel issues, explains. "Both sides, for different reasons, just want this to quiet down after what's been a really difficult past couple of years, and especially six months."
The flashpoint was, of course, the Iran deal. Earlier this year, Netanyahu went behind Obama's back to orchestrate a speech to Congress opposing the Iran deal with Republicans. This enraged the Obama administration, but Netanyahu continued lobbying members of Congress to vote down the deal.
The personal acrimony between the two leaders didn't help.
"Everyone knows they don't like each other," Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, says.
This meeting is about getting past that animosity, and getting back to a place where the two countries can help each other on issues of mutual concern. "The key is signaling, very concretely, that Israel has turned the page on the Iran deal," Sachs says.
Netanyahu and the Democrats: making nice
The most controversial item on Netanyahu's itinerary, so far, hasn't been his meeting with Obama; it's, of all things, a think tank appearance. On November 10, Netanyahu is scheduled to drop by the Center for American Progress (CAP), the leading progressive think tank in Washington, for an onstage discussion with its president, Neera Tanden.
It seems likely that the CAP meeting is an attempt by Netanyahu to repair his relationship with Democrats angered by his approach to the Iran deal and the Palestinians. The event has infuriated some progressives, who saw it as providing liberal cover for a hard-right Israeli leader (disclosure: I worked at CAP previously).
The US-Israel relationship is based on bipartisan support for Israel; without robust Democratic backing, Israel's support would become more partisan, and the country might have a harder time getting the billions in US security assistance and diplomatic cover at the United Nations.
"The Center for American Progress appearance is clearly meant to give him bipartisan cover," Matt Duss, a former CAP staffer and current president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says. "He needs to dial back the sense that he's playing a completely partisan game."
Part of this outreach to the left may include meetings with top Democrats on the Hill: Bloomberg reports that he'll "make the rounds with congressional leaders," though it doesn't specify whom. One important Democrat is out: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Bloomberg she "won't be in town."
But Netanyahu might be too late.
"The question of whether Netanyahu opposes Obama is completely settled in the minds of liberals," Sachs says. "The short of [the CAP speech] is, 'Too little, too late.'"
The only ways to reverse Democratic views of Israel, Sachs suggests, would be either "a dramatic change on the Palestinian issue" — or "a change in [Israeli] leadership."
Netanyahu and Israelis: quieting the critics
Another major purpose of the trip is shoring up Netanyahu's support at home. In the past year, the percentage of Israelis who disapprove of Netanyahu's performance on foreign policy has nearly doubled, owing largely to the prime minister's fights with Obama. Netanyahu's political opponents have seized on that.
"One of the few lines of criticism that got traction in Israeli politics," Duss says, "was that he was mishandling the US-Israel relationship."
Netanyahu's own security establishment, Israel's military and intelligence leadership, are also concerned about any damage he might doing to their strategic relationship with the US.
"The security establishment is very anxious about the US-Israel relationship," Goldenberg says. "As important a threat as Iran might be to Israel, equally important, on the positive side of the ledger, is the US-Israel security relationship."
To counteract that, Netanyahu needs to show that he and Obama can still work together. Duss colorfully sums up Netanyahu's message to Israelis as: "I insulted this president repeatedly, I worked in an unprecedented fashion to undermine his foreign policy goals, and I'm still welcomed in Washington."
Noting the symbolism of front-page photographs of Netanyahu and Obama side by side, Sachs says the trip "could be somewhat helpful" at home. "Israelis are quite attuned to this stuff."
Netanyahu and Palestinians: putting the peace process on life support
White House officials told reporters on Thursday that there would be no attempt to broker a final status agreement on Israel-Palestine during the Obama's remaining time in office.
"There's been a very clear message [on this] from the White House, and not a surprising one," Sachs says. "Moreover, it's the correct one: I don't think there's major prospects of breakthrough on a deal in the next year."
That doesn't mean the US is totally giving up. All three experts I spoke to agreed that the US will bring up the conflict, though it will likely focus on preventing the collapse of the two-state solution rather trying to make an agreement actually happen in the short term.
"There's a lot of very important work to be done on mitigating the slide away from a possible two-state solution," Sachs says. "An all-or-nothing approach that says we're either going to get an agreement or not be engaged on this issue has run its course."
According to Goldenberg, Obama will likely ask Netanyahu to "show quiet restraint: try to not stir the pot." That means, among other things, "trying to dissuade Israel from taking the worst kind of [West Bank] settlement activities; activities that, down the line, can make it impossible to pursue a two-state solution." Other priorities will include preventing the current conflict centering on Jerusalem from escalating as well as propping up the Palestinian Authority.