Obama and Netanyahu: A story of slights and crossed signals
For US President Barack Obama, it was a day of celebration. He had just signed the most important domestic measure of his presidency, his health care program. So when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrived at the White House for a hastily arranged visit, it was most likely not the main thing on his mind.
To White House officials, it was a show of respect to make time for Netanyahu on that day back in March 2010. But Netanyahu did not see it that way. He felt squeezed in, not accorded the rituals of such a visit. No photographers were invited to record the moment. “That wasn’t a good way to treat me,” he complained to an American afterward.
The tortured relationship between Barack and Bibi, as they call each other, has been a story of crossed signals, misunderstandings, slights perceived and real. Burdened by mistrust, divided by ideology, the leaders of the United States and Israel talked past each other for years until the rupture over Obama’s push for a nuclear agreement with Iran led to the spectacle of Netanyahu denouncing the president’s efforts before a joint meeting of Congress.
As Netanyahu arrives at the White House on Monday for his first visit in more than a year, both leaders have reasons to put the past behind them. They will discuss a new security agreement and ways to counter Iran.
But few believe their relationship can ever be more than coolly transactional. Undergirding their personal disconnect are different world views. Obama sees Netanyahu as captured by a hard-line philosophy that blocks progress. Netanyahu considers Obama hopelessly naive about one of the world’s most volatile neighborhoods.
“They have a fraught relationship, and it’s fueled by a belief on the part of both of them that the other is trying to screw them, trip them up, thwart their policies, corner them, ambush them,” said Martin Indyk, the president’s former special envoy to the Middle East. “They each have a number of cases where they feel the other acted in bad faith.”
Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, said no single issue had caused the rift. “It was a gradual thing that widened over time,” he said. “History will probably say that both leaders mismanaged their relationship. It’s not one party.”
If the current animosity between the United States and Israel is not unique in the history of relations between the two governments, it is the worst in more than two decades. Netanyahu feels disrespected and misled by a president he thinks does not have Israel’s best interests at heart. Obama feels aggrieved at being portrayed as anti-Israel even though he has provided extensive security aid and fought Palestinian efforts seeking recognition as a state at the United Nations.
“My sense is they each thought they could get the better of the other,” said Mara Rudman, a former deputy envoy for Middle East peace under Obama. “They’re competitive. And I don’t know that that sense of competition ever dissipated.”
Yaakov Amidror, another former national security adviser to Netanyahu, said the differences lay more in the substance than their personalities. “I’m not saying there are no personal issues â€” for sure, at the end of the day, they are human beings,” he said. “But it is much more about how we evaluate the situation than how we evaluate each other.”
Given their vastly different positions, friction between the liberal Democrat and the conservative Likud leader was inevitable. But it was exacerbated by choices along the way.
Friends and critics say Obama was never adequately attuned to the sensitivities of the alliance. Not known for warm relations with foreign leaders, Obama had difficulty understanding why Netanyahu would not trust him, and made certain decisions worse by not preparing the Israeli leader for what he was going to do.
Netanyahu, for his part, chose the most incendiary interpretations of Obama’s policies, preferring to express outrage instead of emphasizing common ground, according to his own advisers. His suspicions were fanned by visiting Republican lawmakers and conservative patrons, like casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who had their own complaints about the president.
When they talk â€” and they have not spoken since a phone call in July â€” the conversations are robust and pointed. Netanyahu makes points bluntly, restraining where possible what his former ambassador, Michael Oren, described in a memoir as a “monumental rage capable, it sounded, of cracking a telephone receiver.” Obama is more reserved but may come off as condescending and rarely lets a point go unrebutted.
A phone call between Obama and Netanyahu can last up to 90 minutes. “They like debating each other, to an extent,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser.
After all, they have done it a lot.
Obama and Netanyahu first met in 2007 when their aides hastily arranged a chat at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in a janitor’s office. Netanyahu, then in the opposition, was heading home and Obama, running for president, was returning from the campaign trail. They “actually had chemistry,” Rhodes said.
Netanyahu was impressed. “He’s got it, he can beat Hillary,” he told advisers afterward, according to Arad, referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was also seeking the Democratic nomination.
They met again, in July 2008, when Obama had secured the Democratic nomination and was visiting Jerusalem. The day before, a Palestinian had rammed a bulldozer into Israelis at a bus stop. After talking about security, Netanyahu suggested they walk to the attack site. Obama demurred, seeing it as showmanship.
Once he was president, Obama made obtaining a Middle East peace agreement a priority, announcing the appointment of former Sen. George J. Mitchell as special envoy two days after taking office. “I really want to try to do something here,” Mitchell recalled the president telling him.
As a start, Obama decided to press Israel to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff then, urged a strong stand saying otherwise Netanyahu, now prime minister, would “walk all over us,” as Clinton, then the secretary of state, put it in her memoir.
The decision was included in a White House briefing paper without asking Mitchell first. Mitchell supported the idea. But others did not.
“My advice was not to do it,” recalled James B. Cunningham, then ambassador to Israel. “It didn’t seem to me to be the right way to start building a relationship.”
When Netanyahu came to Washington in May 2009, he felt blindsided by the demand. Emerging from nearly two hours alone with Obama, the prime minister “looked ashen,” Arad said, from “the direct body blow.”
The tension grew when Obama gave a speech in Cairo reaching out to the Muslim world but did not also visit Israel. While he urged Muslims to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, he seemed to justify it because of the Holocaust rather than centuries of Jewish roots in the region.
“One of the mistakes frankly was when he went to Cairo, he should have gone to Israel at the same time,” Mitchell said.
At the heart of the trouble, according to Dennis B. Ross, another former American special envoy, was a decision by Obama that he needed to establish distance from Israel to build credibility in the Arab world.
In his new book, “Doomed to Succeed,” and in an interview, Ross said Obama had told Jewish leaders that he would not continue President George W. Bush’s policy of allowing “no daylight” between the United States and Israel. Ross attributed this to Malcolm Hoenlein, chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
In an interview last week, Hoenlein described the Jewish leaders’ meeting with Obama. “I said, ‘The lesson of history is there shouldn’t be daylight between the two countries because their enemies will exploit it,'” he recalled. “He said, ‘Eight years, no daylight. Eight years, no progress.'”
Ross argues that distancing from Israel has never generated the Arab cooperation that presidents expect. But aides said Obama simply believed in honestly airing differences, not creating distance. “This was not the guiding basis of our policy,” Rhodes said. “The guiding basis was to be energetic for a two-state solution.”
The settlement freeze became the defining issue. Netanyahu finally agreed to a 10-month moratorium, but when Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel in March 2010, he was caught off guard by the announcement of a new housing project in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu assured him it was done without his knowledge but Obama was furious, leading to the tense meeting at the White House without the photographs, a session made worse by exaggerated stories of shabby behavior in Israeli news media.
The Palestinians resisted talks until three weeks before the freeze was to expire, and Netanyahu refused to extend it. The process collapsed before really beginning.
Disillusioned, Mitchell resigned, convinced that Washington had let the settlement issue become too central. “My own view is the failure was not one of policy but clearly articulating a policy,” he said last month. “We did not do a good job of explaining that our request for a settlement freeze was not a precondition for negotiating.”
Uprising in Egypt
Netanyahu’s conviction that Obama did not understand the Middle East was reinforced by the Arab Spring uprisings, particularly the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. He had been a friend of the Israelis, who were appalled at what they saw as “our throwing Mubarak under the bus,” said Cunningham, the former American ambassador. “It was kind of a shock to them.”
Ties grew frostier when, the day before a Netanyahu visit, Obama gave a speech trying to revive the peace process and endorsing the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as the basis of a deal, along with mutually agreed land swaps. When the Israeli leader landed in Washington, Oren said he “saw fire in Netanyahu’s eyes.”
Obama told Netanyahu his position was not meaningfully different from previous U.S. policy, and emphasized the land swaps. But when reporters were allowed into the Oval Office, Netanyahu sternly lectured Obama in front of the cameras. Netanyahu felt emboldened; Obama felt burned.
Benefit of the doubt was gone. When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was overheard calling Netanyahu a liar, Obama replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
Divisions Over Iran
The relationship further deteriorated during the 2012 presidential race when Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, traveled to Jerusalem and Netanyahu embraced him. But the president’s victory ushered in a thaw; he helped broker a truce to fighting in Gaza that fall and decided to make Israel the first foreign destination of his second term, even without tangible progress to justify it.
“Several of us were arguing we have to wait for the moment,” recalled Rhodes. “He said, ‘I just need to go to Israel because we can’t simply wait for all the stars to align.'”
The visit in March 2013 became “the high-water mark in their relationship,” according to Rhodes. Obama spoke Hebrew, quoted the Talmud and visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. He charmed Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, at a private dinner and held her chair out at the public state dinner. Benjamin Netanyahu responded by settling a dispute with Turkey at Obama’s request.
Several months later, John Kerry, who had succeeded Clinton as secretary of state, surprised Obama by persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to negotiations.
“I’m more pessimistic than all of you,” the president told the negotiators, according to Indyk. For good reason. The new process eventually collapsed just like the first.
Then came Obama’s decision not to follow through on threats of airstrikes against Syria if it was found to use chemical weapons. When it did, he instead struck a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal.
Arguably, it was a better result for Israel since it removed a threat. But Israelis saw irresolution: If Obama would not keep his word to punish Syria, they feared he would not use force to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb if necessary.
As it turned out, the United States had been conducting secret talks with Iran brokered by Oman. “What the Americans did is try to deceive us,” said Amidror, the former security adviser. “They didn’t tell us about Oman. That was not the turning point, but it gave those who still had some trust in America a very good reason to go to the other side.”
Netanyahu was outraged. “He was shouting at Kerry, out of control,” Indyk recalled. Publicly, the Israeli leader called an interim nuclear deal a “historic mistake.” Obama called with reassurances to no avail.
Ross, who had left government, visited the prime minister during the call with the president. After hanging up, Netanyahu said Obama had indicated that domestic politics ruled out the use of force and therefore required a deal.
“I told Bibi, ‘No way did he say that, no way,'” Ross recalled. “I’m convinced they just talked past each other.”
Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, was angered by Netanyahu’s belligerence. She later told Abraham H. Foxman, now the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, that Netanyahu did everything but “use the N-word” to describe the president. Foxman interpreted that as hyperbole not an accusation of racism.