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Between Obama and Netanyahu, It’s Personal

So the tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu isn’t personal. That’s what the president said during his March 24 press briefing. Those of us who favor close U.S.-Israeli relations can breathe a sign of relief. Or start seriously worrying, depending on your viewpoint.

On one hand, if it’s not personal then we needn’t fear that some deep chemical aversion prevents the two leaders from working together. The strains we’ve been witnessing lately are simply old-fashioned hard bargaining.

On the other hand, if it’s just business, then perhaps the reason for the current crisis is that the gaps between the two sides are very broad indeed — perhaps too broad to be eased by the personal massaging that usually smooths bumps between allies. It may be, as Obama implied at his press conference, that the two leaders have virtually irreconcilable notions of their nations’ essential interests. If so, we could be in for a rough ride.

The disagreement is over Palestinian statehood, Obama told the reporters. Netanyahu declared the day before Israel’s March 17 election, Obama explained, that a “Palestinian state would not occur while he was prime minister, and I took him at his word.” So did the voters. True, the prime minister backtracked after the voting, but he added conditions “that would be impossible to meet anytime soon.”

American policy, Obama recalled, has long been based “under Republican and Democratic administrations” on the goal of seeing two states living side by side. Right now “that possibility seems very dim.” Accordingly, America has to reevaluate its stance.

No, he insisted, we’re not reevaluating “our military and intelligence cooperation with Israel,” which “will continue unabated.” What we need to figure out is “how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations” going forward. Given the current trajectory, the deadlock could “lead to downward spiral in relations that would be dangerous for everybody.”

“What we can’t do,” he said, “is pretend that there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years.”

It’s not an issue of personalities, the president concluded. Onlookers would like to believe that if “we all hold hands and sing Kumbaya” then problems will disappear. In this case, though, “the issue is a very clear, substantive challenge. We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability. That’s our view. And that continues to be our view. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach.”

It was a compelling presentation, arguably the strongest case Obama has offered in years for the importance of a two-state solution as an American national interest. Also his bluntest presentation yet of his conflict with Netanyahu.

But it had several big holes in it. Start with the fact that this wasn’t the first time Netanyahu publicly disavowed his 2009 embrace of Palestinian statehood. He did so far more emphatically last July 11, just days into Operation Protective Edge.

“I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say,” Netanyahu said then, “that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” That didn’t even have the excuse of electioneering. It was from the gut.

How did Obama react to the July bombshell? He didn’t. He had deduced long before that the prime minister wasn’t on board with the administration’s notion of Palestinian statehood. The president had given only tepid support to Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013 peace initiative. Obama didn’t think Kerry’s peace talks had any real chance of success. He doubted either Netanyahu or Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was ready to make the hard decisions.

So why now, suddenly, did the president decide to confront Netanyahu openly over Palestinian statehood? And why is he so dismissive of the prime minister’s attempt to walk back his statement? Two reasons, I suspect.

First, this confrontation isn’t really about Palestinian statehood. It’s about Iran, and the prime minister’s very open effort to derail the nuclear talks before they reach an agreement. Both Netanyahu and Obama claim they share the same goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, but the truth is that they’re poles apart. Obama and the P5+1 allies want Iran’s nuclear project hemmed in, so that if the mullahs decide to build a weapon, the allies will have time to take action. Netanyahu wants Iran’s nuclear infrastructure dismantled, so it can’t even try to build a weapon.

Netanyahu sees the allies’ strategy as effectively acquiescing to a nuclear Iran. Obama sees Netanyahu’s strategy as utterly unrealistic and probably intended to force military action against Iran. The president hasn’t forgotten Netanyahu’s September 2002 testimony to Congress, urging an invasion of Iraq. Bibi claimed then that toppling Saddam Hussein would “have enormous positive reverberations throughout the region” and likely galvanize Iranians to topple their own regime. The White House sees the same misguided thinking at work now.

Obama is aware, too, that Netanyahu recently tried to prevent his own Mossad chief from meeting senators because he didn’t want them to hear that Israeli intelligence backs Obama’s approach, not Netanyahu’s. So when Obama says the issues aren’t personal, he’s partly disingenuous. He considers Netanyahu reckless. That’s pretty personal.

The second reason is even more personal: Netanyahu’s election day warning to right-wing voters that Israeli Arabs were “streaming to the polls in droves.” That, like the previous day’s no-Palestinian-state declaration, was naked electioneering. Netanyahu’s lieutenants insist it wasn’t meant to suppress Arab votes, but to motivate right-wing voters. To the White House, though, that’s a distinction without a difference. Whatever Netanyahu thought he was telling Israeli voters in Hebrew, the English translation sounded very different to an African-American president who had marched in Selma just 10 days earlier, celebrating the voting rights struggle that made his career possible.

White House officials from Obama on down were livid. Public reactions were borderline diplomatic; the president told Huffington Post the words would “give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state” and “starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.” But private reactions were openly contemptuous. No more paltry epithets: The Israeli leader is now described bluntly as a racist.

That’s the hidden message behind the president’s March 24 warning. It’s not about Palestinian statehood. That was last year. It’s hardly even about Israeli security. The administration knows what Israel’s military does and doesn’t need to keep the country safe, because it hears it directly from Israel’s military. That’s the double-edged sword of close military and intelligence cooperation: The prime minister can ignore what his own intelligence tells him, but he can’t hide it from Israel’s allies.

All he accomplishes by his Iran campaign is to make himself look craven and foolish in the eyes of Israel’s closest allies. And his election campaigning does the rest. Yes, it’s personal.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected]

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