When Barack Obama looks at the White House appointment book and sees that Benjamin Netanyahu will come calling next Monday, I doubt he'll smile. Past meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister have come in two types: ones in which they publicly displayed the mutual distaste of brothers-in-law who wish they weren't in business together and ones in which they pretended for the cameras that they get along.
Netanyahu's political soul is a hybrid of an early 21st-century Republican and a mid-20th-century Central European. In a certain place inside him, every day is September 30, 1938, when Britain sold out Czechoslovakia, and great-power perfidy is inevitable. A year ago, in his more contemporary mode, Netanyahu was publicly supporting Obama's electoral opponent, a detail neither man will mention on Monday.
Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they are not quite talking to each other. Netanyahu's goals next week are to get Obama to commit himself to conditions for a deal on Iran's nuclear program that Tehran will reject and to avoid paying with any concessions to America's position on the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Syria will also be on the agenda. As always, Netanyahu will try to get Congress to take his more hawkish stance against the president, with encouragement from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. But there are contradictions—logical, strategic, political, and personal—in Netanyahu's stance that weaken him even before the conversation with Obama begins.
First, the logical problem: Netanyahu categorically insists that any relatively moderate rhetoric from Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, is "spin," obscuring his intentions. The problem is that Netanyahu also insisted that all extreme statements from Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were precise expressions of what he planned to do. By this measuring stick, all Iranians have the same policy and can be trusted only to the extent that they are as crude as Ahmadinejad. Negotiating with Iran is therefore a dangerous waste of time.
It's true that the Hebrew advice, "Respect him and suspect him," should be applied to Rouhani's charm offensive. His election did constitute a political shift in Iran, but not a revolution. Rouhani's refusal to tell NBC's Ann Curry that the Holocaust happened doesn't inspire confidence. But if it mattered when Ahmadinejad said Israel should be wiped off the map, it should matter that Rouhani hasn't said that. It makes sense to test him at the negotiating table rather than assuming that all negotiations follow the script of Munich 1938.
This brings us to the contradictions in Netanyahu's strategic thinking. The prime minister wasn't subtle in criticizing Obama's decision not to attack Syria earlier this month and instead pursue a deal on the Assad regime surrendering its chemical weapons. "The world needs to know that those who use weapons of mass destruction will pay a price," he declared at an Israeli Navy ceremony (Hebrew here) as the deal developed. The message of weakness "would be heard in Tehran," he said, adding a Talmudic maxim to stress that Israel now stood alone against Iran.
Let's read this carefully: Netanyahu wanted a military strike to establish deterrence against use of nonconventional weapons. Then Assad finally acknowledged that he has chemical arms and agreed to give them up. It turns out that a realistic threat of an attack led to deterrence, without one Tomahawk fired. In what way does this show that America, or Obama, is weak?
True, if the disarmament process goes ahead, the Syrian regime will do its best to hide and keep part of its arsenal. But there was never any hope that an American air attack could eliminate Syrian chemical weapons. The measure of the diplomatic effort is not whether it disarms Syria completely but whether it accomplishes more than missiles would have.
Netanyahu is right that the lessons apply to Iran, but not in the way he means. No feasible plan yet presented for an American attack would permanently prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. An Israeli air offensive, necessarily much more limited, would do less. Either one would spur Iran to redouble its effort to gain a nuclear deterrent.
But Netanyahu defines military or diplomatic success as ending Iran's enrichment of uranium and its "plutonium track" to build bombs, "removing all enriched uranium" from the country, and dismantling the Fordo enrichment facility. It's hard to imagine Rouhani agreeing to that—and harder to imagine a military attack "removing all enriched uranium." The test for talks with Rouhani is not whether they can achieve the ideal but whether they can achieve more than the military option would. Proposed diplomatic compromises include permitting Iran to have a civilian nuclear program if it gives up uranium enriched to the dangerous 20 percent level and if it allows supervision, with unannounced visits by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. That's less than what Netanyahu wants but could be better than the long-term outcome of attacking Iran.
Next comes the political paradox: It was not exactly clear that Congress was about to approve a military attack on Syria. Even AIPAC's lobbying clout, reportedly recruited by Obama, didn't melt congressional doubts about risking another armed conflict in the Middle East.
If Netanyahu believes that Obama has, once again, gone dangerously diplomatic—that he is too willing to negotiate, too willing to reach a compromise—experience says that the prime minister will turn to Congress, with help from AIPAC. The immediate goal will be yet more sanctions, effective or not. But if the conditions for ending sanctions are Netanyahu's, the diplomatic path is a dead end. Sooner or later, probably sooner, Congress will have to debate a military action more extensive and dangerous than attacking Syria. There are senators and representatives who will take Netanyahu's side on Iran sanctions but weren't ready to vote for bombing Syria. Washington journalists should ask each of them regularly about whether they are willing to pursue Netanyahu's strategy up to and including war.
And finally, there's Netanyahu's internal divide: He truly believes that Israel stands alone and must therefore decide itself on how to deal with Iran—and also that the United States must do what is necessary to protect Israel. The former belief precludes seeking accommodation with Washington; the latter makes accommodation essential, not just on Iran but on the Palestinian issue as well.
Netanyahu, in other words, will arrive at the White House with a strong voice and a set of expectations that don't hold together. He will arrive in a weaker position than at previous meetings. This may not make the president smile, but it should make him resolute.