Putting Bibi and Barack on the Couch

Why There's Little Hope of Better Relationship Between Leaders

Not Happy Campers: There’s a reason why Bibi and Barack never look comfortable with each other. They don’t see eye to eye and the reasons may be much more deep-seated than politics.
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Not Happy Campers: There’s a reason why Bibi and Barack never look comfortable with each other. They don’t see eye to eye and the reasons may be much more deep-seated than politics.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 27, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
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This Obama-Netanyahu relationship is not expected to be tested until Netanyahu forms his new coalition, a task made more difficult by an Israeli election that distributed power among several parties. If Netanyahu turns to centrist parties to help form his coalition, the result could be a government that, at least rhetorically, remains committed to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict backed by Washington and the international community. If Netanyahu chooses to join forces with the right-wing parties, his relationship with Obama is certain to be harder.

But in either event, there is a mitigating factor: Based on his inauguration speech and his post-election victory speech, in which the Middle East conflict got not one word, Obama does not view the Middle East peace process as a top priority for his second term in office. Events often have a way of forcing that issue to the top of a president’s agenda. But if that does not happen, Obama’s friction with Netanyahu could remain limited.

The two leaders’ disagreements over dealing with Iran’s nuclear program could also be averted, since their differences have subsided recently. An effective sanctions regime has put Israel at ease for the short term, as has a stern promise by Obama to use military force if all other options fail to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“Obama considers Netanyahu to be a con man who does not understand Israel’s interests or the concept of reciprocity,” Miller said. “Netanyahu sees the president as someone who does not understand that at the end of the day, Israel is a tiny county in a dangerous neighborhood.”

The major clashes that made for this history were centered on disputes over the Palestinian issue and on Israel’s settlement policy in the occupied West Bank. Relations started off on the wrong foot, with a heated dispute over Obama’s demand for an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and over Netanyahu’s decision to expand building in East Jerusalem. Later, the two leaders’ clashing worldviews flared when Obama called for a peace accord based on the 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps. Obama and Netanyahu’s latest falling-out was over Israel’s demand that Washington lay down “red lines” for Iran, and over Obama’s insistence on not setting such conditions.

Obama has sought to shift the spotlight from his difficult personal relations with Netanyahu to his strategic effort to increase U.S. military support to Israel, and to the leading role that America has taken under his presidency in blocking anti-Israel activity in international bodies, including the United Nations. Moves like these, which are seen as less personal, indeed, almost default, positions, are likely to continue. Any step away from them by Obama would constitute a bomb thrown into the midst of his troubled cohabitation with Netanyahu, which, as with so many couples, could otherwise muddle on for some time on its own impetus.

Speaking to reporters as Israelis went to the polls January 22, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama will “wait and see the make-up of the next Israeli government,” adding that in any case, America’s goal remains to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “That has not changed, and it will not change,” he said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman


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