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Obama backs Bibi on direct talks

Marc Tracy
July 12, 2010
Netanyahu and Obama last week.(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Netanyahu and Obama last week.(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s been quite some time since the U.S.-Israeli relationship felt like the old normal. But after last week, which featured Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Oval Office photo-op—not to be confused with March’s secretive and desperate and frank conversation, nor early June’s almost-meeting which was cancelled when the flotilla happened—it seems that Netanyahu and President Obama have reached some sort of equilibrium. Frenemies, call them.

It would be foolish to believe that the bad blood between the two men, the product of specific events to occur on their watches as well as each man’s opposing politics and temperaments, has simply gone away. One doesn’t see Obama inviting Bibi to a White Sox game the next time he’s stateside; and as for a trip to Israel, well, that’s not in the cards this year. But, as you know if you have a frenemy (and who doesn’t?), you may distrust your frenemy, or worse, on the inside; but to the outside world, and for all practical effects, your frenemy is basically your friend.

Most concretely, it was the act of a friend for President Obama to come out in favor of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as soon as possible, which is Netanyahu’s position. President Abbas, by contrast, continues to insist on further U.S.-sponsored “proximity talks” to hammer out some shared assumptions before direct talks are broached. Obama phoned Abbas after meeting with Bibi to apply the screws. “We’re under pressure to agree to direct negotiations with Israel,” a Palestinian official reportedly confirmed.

The next step toward direct talks would be Arab League approval. And—whaddya know?—here is Netanyahu telling his Cabinet that he will travel to meet with the ailing Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday to try to enlist him in his effort to get direct talks underway. Will the 83-year-old Egyptian dictator’s flirtations with mortality, and concomitant desire for a legacy, aid Netanyahu’s case? Maybe. But far more persuasive to Mubarak, when Bibi asks him to help secure Arab League approval for direct talks, will be his knowledge that both countries’ biggest patron is firmly behind the Israeli prime minister.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.