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The Power of the First Impression

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 9, 2009
Wall Street Journal

First impressions matter. Experts say we size up new people in somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes. So how will the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the meeting, go when President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit down together on May 18?

The first thing to remember is that this meeting is far more important for Mr. Netanyahu than for Mr. Obama; Mr. Netanyahu has a lot more at stake. Foreign leaders come and go in the White House week in and week out, as fast as you can change the sheets in Blair House. (Blair House is for one-night stands, two if you're lucky. When the King of Jordan dropped by for a whole week in late April he had to stay at a fancy hotel instead. Mr. Netanyahu will happily take Blair House, a physical token of his return to the prime minister's office after 10 years in the wilderness.)

All those meetings with presidents, prime ministers and princes are valuable for the United States in many ways, yet none are really critical for our security and our future. For an Israeli prime minister, those relations are a matter of survival - political survival because his opponents at home will quickly jump on any perceived gap with Washington, and physical survival because Iran's nuclear program tops Mr. Netanyahu's agenda.

Mr. Netanyahu has to care about forging a personal relationship with Mr. Obama, but Mr. Obama may feel he doesn't need Mr. Netanyahu as a pal. Mr. Obama appears to have enormous faith in his own personal charm (and why not? Look where it's gotten him) but we do not yet know when he pours it on. Just how much do personal relations with foreign leaders matter to him? For George W. Bush, they mattered a lot: His negative view of Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac and his trust in Ariel Sharon changed U.S. foreign policy.

Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu will each come to the meeting confident in his ability to judge people. Both men are after all democratic politicians, not princes - nor bureaucrats or academics like most of their staffs. They size people up for a living, have risen to the top doing so, and have a great belief in their own talents. They may of course be wrong; after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, Mr. Bush famously said, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul."

That kind of generous and hugely wrong assessment is unlikely here, for both Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu will come to the meeting half poisoned against the other. Mr. Netanyahu will have been told that Mr. Obama is weak and naive, won't act against Iran and doesn't understand the way the world works. Mr. Obama will have been told that Mr. Netanyahu is a "right winger" (and therefore bad by definition) who is tricky and untrustworthy and needs to be pushed hard if there's to be "progress toward peace." U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell has already met Mr. Netanyahu several times and will offer the president his private opinion on their sessions in Jerusalem, which one can just imagine: Both smiling, both seeking to appear totally sincere, each doing all he can to maneuver the other into a narrow corner.

It's unlikely that we'll know quickly whether they hit it off. The Israelis will almost certainly make this claim within seconds after the meeting ends, and will adduce every possible piece of evidence. Mr. Obama smiled; he put his arm on Mr. Netanyahu's shoulder; his body language was friendly; his tie had positive colors.

The White House leaks will be more interesting, for the staff may want to keep Mr. Netanyahu nervous; we'll have to watch what favored journalists are told about the chemistry in the days after the visit. We should not expect to hear the kind of crack that French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently made to journalists after meeting the president (that Mr. Obama was "not always at his best when it comes to decisions and efficiency"), as that does not appear to be the Obama style. If he makes an exception for Mr. Netanyahu and has the staff trash the prime minister to the media, we'll know the two men decided to loathe each other.

And then there is substance. Messrs. Netanyahu and Obama have a lot to talk about, from Palestinians to Syria to the United Nations, but for Mr. Netanyahu - as for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the president will soon find out -- the top item is Iran. Israelis see an Iranian bomb as an existential threat, for two reasons. First, they cannot be sure an Iranian leader waiting excitedly for the Mahdi's return will be using game theory and mathematical calculations to decide whether it's sensible to strike the Jewish State. Even former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom European diplomats view as a wonderful moderate, called Israel "a one-bomb country."

Even if they assume Iran would not "nuke" Israel (out of fear that a counterstrike would end this brief period of growing Shia ascendancy in the Islamic world), Israelis fear what Iranian possession of a nuke would do to the morale of their society. That is, take today's threats ("cancerous tumor" that must be removed, says the Supreme Leader) and add a nuclear bomb, and Israelis would be living under threat of annihilation--call it Holocaust?--every day. Can such a place attract immigrants, or deter brain drain? Does it seem like a place with a real future? Can the children of Holocaust survivors sit around and take a chance on Iran?

Mr. Netanyahu will tell the president that the answer is no; Iran can't be allowed to have the bomb. He will urge Mr. Obama to adopt a far tougher program of economic sanctions than now exists, and accept the use of force as a last resort. This portion of the meeting will be fateful. In June 1961, when John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev met in Vienna two months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Soviet leader concluded that Mr. Kennedy was a pushover. Just over two months later Mr. Khrushchev gave the go-ahead for building the Berlin Wall, and just over a year later he was putting missiles into Cuba. Mr. Khrushchev had decided that Mr. Kennedy was "too intelligent and too weak." If that's the assessment Mr. Netanyahu makes--that Mr. Obama is plenty smart, but will never risk confronting Iran--he may resolve that an Israeli strike on Iran is unavoidable.

Israel's military options and capabilities against Iran--and the state of its intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program--are of course state secrets, but the Israeli air force has been practicing long-range bombing runs. Israel's surprise attack on the secret Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar in 2007 was gutsy and beautifully done, but far simpler than an attack on Iran--which is much farther away and presents multiple targets. Israel must also assess how Iran, and its agents in Hezbollah, would react to such an attack. Syria, like Iraq after Israel hit the Osirak reactor in 1981, did not react by trying to strike Israel; indeed Syria even hid the fact of the bombing, trying to save face. Iran might do likewise, might respond with acts of terrorism against Israel, or might unleash rockets attacks on Israeli military sites or even Israeli cities. So the decision on this subject is the most difficult one facing Israel's government and the one Mr. Netanyahu will most wish to discuss with President Obama.

On the "peace process," Mr. Obama will want progress toward a negotiated settlement, while Mr. Netanyahu will offer practical actions (more jobs and fewer roadblocks in the West Bank; more meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; more training of Palestinian police). This past week he outlined a "triple track" approach: renewed peace negotiations as the political track, strengthening the Palestinian "security apparatus" as the security track, and an economic track meant to advance the Palestinian economy. But it seemed clear that security comes first, and that a final status agreement is not in the cards right now.

Israel launched a surprise attack on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Satellite photos show the area before, left, and after.

Mr. Mitchell seems to understand all of this, wily pol that he is - and impressed as he is by the Arab preoccupation with Iran rather than with the Palestinians. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, another pol, seems to get it too. With the Palestinians split between Fatah and Hamas - †Fatah unreformed and desperately weak, Iran and Hezbollah pouring support into every rejectionist group and now undermining Mr. Mubarak in Egypt - the old "peace process" is increasingly irrelevant to real world crises.

There is a critical struggle under way right now in the Middle East, but it is not between Israelis and Palestinians; it is the people aligned with us--including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United Arab Emirates--against Iran, Qatar, Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups. Mr. Netanyahu will tell the president this, but no one knows if the president will buy it - at least until he consults with those Arab leaders and hears the same thing.

The problem of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the supply of oil to the U.S. and the world market, the huge sovereign wealth funds now in the hands of Gulf countries, and the fear of terrorism by Arab extremist groups such as Al Qaeda are among the reasons that the Middle East remains a key geopolitical interest for the U.S. In a short period of weeks this spring, American officials are traveling throughout the region (just this past week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and other officials were in Syria), and the president is receiving visits from the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

In his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Mr. Obama will ask for something on settlements. If he goes back to the old 2001 Mitchell Report language ("settlement freeze, including natural growth"), Mr. Netanyahu will explain, pol to pol, that no democratic government can "freeze" life in a town of 38,000 like Maale Adumim. He might ask the president how long could you "freeze" 100% of construction in Bowling Green, Ky., or Salem, Mass., which are about the same size, before voters revolted and citizens just ignored such an edict. Mr. Netanyahu may offer some compromises - constrained settlement growth, perhaps no growth beyond the security fence or no "physical" growth, meaning "build up, not out." He will be watching Mr. Obama's body language during these exchanges attentively.

Here too, it's unlikely that we'll know the outcome fast. After the meetings, both teams will want to cogitate on what just happened, what the other guy really meant, what their guy really committed to. The Israelis will be looking especially for hints of new American policies, departures from the Bush years. They will focus on the tone of the president's comments on Iran: Does he call it "unacceptable" for Iran to get the bomb or use a weaker word? On the Palestinians, does he say simply that progress is our goal, or does he call it "urgent"? Does he link our ability to help on Iran to such progress, with terms like "precondition"? Does he publicly speak about a settlement freeze, and if so in what terms - demand, desire, propose, suggest? Keep your thesaurus handy, to help interpret what the president said, and what he "really meant."

Often it isn't clear; diplomacy is a game in which words are used to obfuscate, not inform. Is a commitment to study a proposal carefully a half-agreement or a polite dismissal? Is "100% effort" a guarantee of action or early notice that those efforts will fail to produce progress? When the Bush administration promised to "address fully and seriously" all of Israel's objections to the "Roadmap to Peace," many Israelis reached for their dictionaries. Why did we need an address? What were we going to mail, and to whom? If the president says we need to "create the conditions" for progress toward peace, does that mean he thinks peace is years off, or is it a polite way of saying "stop settlements now"? It may be months before we really know the meaning of the words spoken in the Obama-Netanyahu sessions.

The physical details of the meetings will be carefully noted by both sides as well. Who attends, or perhaps more importantly, who is left out? Is Mr. Mitchell there? Dennis Ross, the new special adviser on Iran? Who from the White House staff accompanies National Security Adviser Jim Jones? Who speaks up, and who stays silent? To whom does the president turn for advice or information? And on the other side, who is with Mr. Netanyahu and whom does he appear to trust? How is he treated? Does he get lunch? And if so, in the West Wing, or "at home" in the East Wing residence? Or does he just get a plain-vanilla meeting in the Oval Office, and go away hungry?

Silent witnesses to the forthcoming meeting will be the American Jewish community. American Jews are Democrats who voted for Obama. They are happiest when an Israel-friendly Democrat in the White House joins hands with a Labor Party prime minister in Jerusalem. Any other mix makes them nervous. A Republican in the White House is usually mistrusted; after giving Ariel Sharon total backing to crush the intifada, announcing his opposition to the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees and telling Israel it could keep the major settlement blocs in the West Bank, Mr. Bush won only 24% of the Jewish vote in 2004.

The worst combination for American Jews would be a popular Democrat in the White House clashing with a Likud prime minister - so nerves are on edge. American Jews will be pained by any confrontation between the two men, and if one begins to develop they will seek to keep it quiet and to defuse it.

American Jewish leaders are much taken with the Iran issue, though, and if Mr. Obama seems to be tougher on Mr. Netanyahu than on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (or Hugo ChŠvez, for that matter), it won't take long for nerves to fray. Even the Jews, loyalists for the Democrats, can change their votes. Richard Nixon won 17% of the Jewish vote in 1968, but against George McGovern in 1972 that doubled to 35%. George H.W. Bush won 35% of Jews in 2008, perhaps a Jewish vote of thanks to Ronald Reagan, but when he lost his bid for re-election in 1992 he had whittled Jewish support down to 11%. In this league the winner and still champion is Jimmy Carter. Mr. Carter won 71% of the Jewish vote in 1976, but only 45% in 1980. It can happen.

Jews who watched, and then watched again, the clip of President Obama appearing to bow to Saudi King Abdullah when they met in London will pay close attention to the public treatment Mr. Netanyahu gets when he arrives at the White House. In those first 30 seconds the two men will see eye to eye; they are both about 6 feet tall. As they clasp hands for the first time, all smiles, their entourages will know that appearances can be deceiving - and so will we.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the deputy national security adviser overseeing Near East and North African affairs from 2005 to January 2009.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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