During the first three years of the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visits to the White House have been the occasion for some memorable fights with the president. He has been ambushed, insulted, lectured and, on at least one occasion, gave back as good as he got as he pushed back against Obama’s attempt to undercut Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and its rights in Jerusalem. But Netanyahu’s next visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will probably be a very different one entirely. With the president fighting hard to retain the votes and the financial support of American Jews and other friends of Israel, Netanyahu can expect that Obama will be on his very best behavior when he arrives next month for a visit that was announced yesterday.
With the threat of a nuclear Iran hanging over both nations and with the United States eager to dissuade Israel from striking first on its own, the two men have some serious business to conduct. But it is impossible to ignore the political implications of this summit. With evidence mounting that Obama and the Democrats have been bleeding Jewish support in the last year, the visit will take the president’s charm offensive aimed at convincing the Jewish community he is Israel’s best friend to a new level. Netanyahu has good reason to play along with Obama’s pretense, as he may have to go on dealing with him until January 2017. But the question remains whether the two men can sufficiently paper over their personal hostility and policy differences in order for the visit to have the effect the president’s political handlers are aiming for.
Netanyahu will be in Washington to speak to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in early March (Obama is also scheduled to speak at the conference), which makes the invitation to the White House a perfect opportunity for the administration to continue its attempt to erase the bad feelings three years of non-stop spats have created. Having arrived at the White House in January 2009 determined to scrap what he saw as the Bush administration’s preference for Israel over the Palestinians, Obama set out to create more distance between the two countries. That process was exacerbated by Netanyahu’s election as prime minister a month later. Obama, who even during the 2008 presidential campaign had made it clear he was no fan of the Likud, picked unnecessary fights with Netanyahu about settlement freezes and Jerusalem. Initially, the administration seemed to want to force Netanyahu from office, but when their strong-arm tactics strengthened rather than weakened him, Obama was forced to resort to a diplomatic war of attrition against the Israeli.
In 2010, following the president’s decision to treat a housing start in an existing Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem during a visit to the city by Vice President Biden as a crisis, Netanyahu was scolded by Secretary of State Clinton and then personally insulted by the president during a subsequent trip to Washington. A year later the tension boiled over again when Obama ambushed Netanyahu on the eve of another visit by announcing his intention to make the 1967 lines be the starting point for future peace negotiations. But the ploy backfired on Obama when even most members of his own party backed Netanyahu’s opposition to the stand. He was forced to endure a public lecture by the prime minister on the topic of Israel’s security and then look on as Netanyahu was cheered like a conquering hero by a joint meeting of Congress.
Since then, Obama has been more circumspect about his criticisms of Israel as he turned to the difficult task of walking back his antagonism in order to be re-elected. Of late, he has touted himself as having done more for Israel’s security than any president. Though this is, at best, an exaggeration, Obama has not obstructed the long-standing security alliance.
Fortunately for the president, the Palestinians never took advantage of the pressure he exerted on the Israelis, and the peace process will probably be on the back burner next month. But that doesn’t mean there will be no tension during the conclave. Though the administration has escalated its rhetoric against Iran and has, albeit unwillingly, started to take steps toward enforcing tough sanctions against Tehran, it has seemed more alarmed by the prospect of Israel striking Iran’s facilities than of the ayatollahs getting their hands on a nuclear weapon.
The question on the table in March will center on whether the United States can give Israel a reasonable alternative to the use of force. Given the existential threat a nuclear Iran poses to Israel — as well as to the rest of the region and the West — Netanyahu is rightly worried that any further delay will work to Iran’s interests and against that of his own country. Netanyahu will go to Washington probably hoping for a promise that the U.S. will not wait indefinitely for sanctions to work before agreeing to condone or join an Israeli strike. Obama wants Israel to agree not to strike this year and to present a united front that will strengthen both his diplomatic and political posture.
Though Netanyahu can expect a far friendlier reception than during his previous visits, the problem is not only that his goals are antithetical to those of the president but that Obama’s hostility to the Israeli (which he foolishly aired over an open microphone during a chat with French President Sarkozy) is such that it is far from clear whether he can contain his animus long enough to get the friendly photo-op he needs to bolster his re-election campaign.