ON MONDAY, President Obama will sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
With a showdown looming over Iran, their summit will not only be the most important meeting for either leader but it may also be the most consequential meeting for the entire Middle East since Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's 1993 handshake with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Not since the Eisenhower administration has distrust between the White House and the Israeli government been so great. In 1956, it was Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal which divided Washington and Jerusalem.
Eisenhower sought to co-opt and contain Nasser, whereas Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion recognized that a victorious Nasser would set the Middle East aflame. He was right. Over the next 20 years, Israel fought two wars to defend its existence.
Netanyahu sees Iran as an even greater threat. In November, the International Atomic Energy Agency catalogued numerous Iranian nuclear activities that had no purpose other than weapons development.
That, coupled with the Iranian leadership's repeated threats to annihilate Israel, weighs heavily on Netanyahu's mind. Just last month, Supreme Leader Khamenei declared, "The Zionist regime is truly a cancerous tumor in this region and it must be, and will be, cut out."
Netanyahu fears that the window Israel has to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout is closing. The military task is already tough enough but will become near impossible as Iran buries its nuclear facilities under mountains and bolsters its air defense. That Obama on March 2 declared he does not "bluff" suggests he realizes that neither Israeli nor Iranian leaders take his word seriously. Netanyahu interprets talk of containment as an indication that the White House would rather accept a nuclear Iran than prevent it. That Netanyahu refuses to guarantee that he will forewarn the United States of any strike underscores his mistrust.
The distrust between the two leaders is palpable. Obama entered office acting more like a Jerusalem zoning commissioner than as leader of the free world. He publicly chastised Netanyahu, and retracted commitments given by George W. Bush regarding American recognition of Israeli control over Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Nor must Netanyahu read minds to recognize the animus of Obama's advisors; he need only read the memoirs they penned after serving the Clinton White House.
Netanyahu may fear time is running out in Tehran, but Obama's clock revolves around American politics. A nuclear Iran will guarantee elevated gasoline prices for years to come, but Obama's immediate worry is short-term: even a successful Israeli strike before the November elections will spike the price Americans pay at the pump. An unsuccessful strike? Double the price. The Republican field may be weak, but no incumbent wants to run against $8 gas.
Obama may see himself as the antithesis of Reagan but as he sits with Netanyahu, he probably wishes that his first career was in acting. He needs an Oscar-winning performance to convince Netanyahu to wait.