Diplomacy is like courtship, with its rituals to keep passions in check. Both diplomacy and courtship pose tests to see whether a meeting of the minds can turn into a tentative relationship of the hearts and into a proper engagement leading to a union convenient to both sides. Diplomacy is courtship conducted in public and carries a lot of baggage because nations, like families, have diverging vested interests, sending contradictory and conflicting messages.
President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had their "first date" this week at the White House. It wasn't exactly a blind date -- they knew a lot about each other. But their meeting required the delicacy, sensitivity and care of a first night out alone.
The occasion turned out to be more Victorian than modern: Both were on their best behavior. "This was no one summit stand," as JTA, a Jewish news service, described it. Both men were looking for tangible commitments, and Bibi, who enjoys the boyish informality of his nickname, in particular knew how important it was for him to make a good first impression. In fact, he regarded it as a matter of life and death.
Nuclear weapons could enable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, to fulfill his oft-stated evil wish to "wipe Israel off the map." Bibi's fanciful pitching of woo, calling Obama -- somewhat prematurely -- "a great leader of the world," was an understandable extravagance of courtship. The president, as the woo-ee, was gracious in return, referring to the "extraordinary relationship, the special relationship between the United States and Israel," recognizing the Jewish state's distinctive attribute as "the only true democracy in the Middle East." This turn of extravagance was particularly apt, because it is fact as well as flattery.
The two men sounded at times as if they were writing a prenuptial agreement, with the president conceding a time limit on talks to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions and the prime minister agreeing that the Palestinians and Israelis could "live side by side in dignity, in security and in peace," but only when "there's recognition of Israel's legitimacy, its permanent legitimacy." This could make for a long engagement.
But no matter how the leading actors play out their roles on Middle East policy, the deadly poison of anti-Semitism pervades the atmosphere of the region. When the Nazi extermination camps and the extent of Hitler's atrocities were exposed at the end of World War II, a wave of sympathy for Jews enabled the revival of a Jewish state where survivors of the Holocaust could re-establish themselves.
But the success of the Jewish state gave way to the envy and malice of Israel's neighbors, and ancient canards emerged again, first from the Arab street and then from intellectual and academic circles of the left in the West. The new anti-Semitism has especially prospered in European countries with large Muslim populations.
Traditional anti-Semitism has been appropriated to fit new conditions. The textbooks in several Middle Eastern nations repeat the anti-Semitic stereotypes and lies of the textbooks in Nazi Germany. Children's fairy tales have been rewritten to demonize Jews as the villains.
Intellectuals in debates both here and abroad, notoriously in the United Nations, couch their attacks in careful rhetoric, characterizing Israel as "racist" and "colonialist," but at root these are the same old slurs of "the money-grubbing Jews who want to run everything." Such stereotyping was once dismissed as harmless rhetoric, but no longer. Calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel have become a gathering force to delegitimize Israel, writes Michael B. Oren, the new Israeli ambassador to the United States, in Commentary magazine. This is a force, he writes, "that could destroy Israel economically and deny it the ability to defend itself against the existential threats powered by terrorism and Iran."
In 1949, a year after Israel became a state and defended itself in armed struggle, Ralph Bunche, the U.N. special mediator on Palestine and a onetime UCLA basketball star, and among the first blacks to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, called together Arab and Israeli delegates to dine with him on the Greek island of Rhodes. He invited them to examine the beautiful china plates on the table. "If you reach an agreement," he said, "each one of you will get one to take home. But if you don't, I'll break them over your heads."
Bunche forged an armistice, won the Nobel Peace Prize and established America's reputation as the broker -- a marriage broker, perhaps -- for agreements in the Middle East. A lot of dishes have been broken since then. So no matter how smooth the first date, it's much too early for Barack and Bibi to shop for wedding china.