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Israel's Bibi Netanyahu at White House -- showdown or breakthrough?

May 18, 2009 |  8:17 am

Barack Obama and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, known to both friends and foes alike as Bibi, is meeting at the White House today with President Barack Obama.

The Bibi-Barack meeting has been widely forecast as a dramatic showdown, pitting the young president who is trying to negotiate a Mideast peace that has eluded all of his predecessors against the Mr. No of Israeli politics, a conservative who is reluctant to give Palestinians their own state. As Simon Tisdale put it in the Guardian, "It is hard to overstate the importance of this encounter – some would say showdown – for both the men involved and for a region torn by over half a century of discord and blood."

The two sides even clashed over today's agenda. Netanyahu wants top billing for Iran's nuclear threat.  Obama wants the focus to stay on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

But this Oval Office meeting is also a chance for two skilled politicians whose childhoods were spent in foreign countries to take the measure of one another again (they met when Obama was a senator and Netanyahu was opposition leader, seen in this photo above).

They may have more in common than the pundits suggest.

Netanyahu, now in his return engagement as prime minister, was first elected to Israel's top post in 1996 at the age of 47. Ironically, he was defeated by a man named Barak (Ehud Barak, now serving as Defense Minister. Obama comes to the presidency at the same age).

Obama spent formative years living in Indonesia, home of his mother's second husband. Netanyahu, whose father was a historian who did a stint teaching in the United States, went to high school in Philadelphia. 

Aside from coincidences in their biographies, Netanyahu has softened his right-wing rhetoric of late, leading some to speculate that his 1999 defeat taught him the value of pragmatism. If so, he will find a ready ally in Obama, who only Sunday went to the University of Notre Dame, citadel of Catholic teaching, to suggest a pragmatic bridge on abortion, the most contentious issue on his domestic agenda.

Mideast peace looks like it could be the next seemingly irreconcilable issue to get Obama's soothing outreach. The White House is planning a major offensive on Middle East peace in the next few weeks with the president to deliver a major "New Deal" speech about the Middle East in Cairo on June 4 during his first presidential trip to the region.

Netanyahu is holding his own meetings with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders before that. Maybe Obama can change his talking points.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo Credit: David Furst/AFP/Getty