How bad have things gotten between Israel and the United States? Yesterday’s nasty exchange between the two countries in which President Obama turned down a request for a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu showed that the problem has now escalated from a simmering, longstanding argument about the peace process to a full-blown feud. The White House did some damage control and reportedly the two men spoke at length last night. But anyone who thinks that will resolve their differences hasn’t been paying attention to the unhealthy dynamic that has been festering since the two both came into office in early 2009.
The two have sniped and carped at each other for most of the past four years. But the decision of much of the mainstream media, including some journalists in Israel, to characterize this as being a personal dispute is a mistake. Though there’s no question that the two don’t like each other, what is at play here isn’t merely a brawl between two overachieving powerful men who like to have their own way and don’t care much for those who contradict them. Their quarrel is primarily about serious policy differences that represent a fundamental disagreement about the alliance between the two nations and Israel’s place in the world. Obama’s stubborn refusal to treat the nuclear peril from Iran as an existential threat that must be met expeditiously can’t be put down to personal antipathy. Nor is Netanyahu’s refusal to accept Obama’s lip service to the question as an adequate response a function of his surly temperament. Though the personality conflict has aggravated the squabble, it would exist and probably be just as dangerous even if the two were thoroughly compatible.
That Obama can’t stand Netanyahu is not in dispute. We didn’t really need the president’s “hot mic” moment last year, in which Obama sympathized and agreed with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy about his distaste for the Israeli, to know the two weren’t buddies. But that placed it on the record.
Obama came into office saying that any good feelings about Israel were not extended to Netanyahu’s Likud Party and quickly demonstrated that he meant what he said when he resolved to distance the U.S. from Israel as part of his campaign to show that the closeness between the two nations that had grown up during the Bush administration was at an end. In each of his first three years in office, Obama picked fights with Israel over settlements, Jerusalem and the 1967 borders. What’s more, he personalized the argument by repeatedly showing disrespect to Netanyahu on his visits to the U.S. and pointedly refusing to make a courtesy call to Israel when he made his outreach speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009.
Netanyahu held his fire and took the abuse without saying much the first two times, but when the president ambushed him with a speech on the peace process that tilted the diplomatic field in favor of the Palestinians, Netanyahu had enough. He lectured Obama publicly about the dangers facing Israel and then received the cheers of a bipartisan pro-Israel majority at a joint meeting of Congress. The president made no secret about the fact that he was ticked off about the reception Netanyahu was given. But since the Palestinians’ disinterest in making peace even on Obama’s terms rendered the arguments moot, nothing came of any of this.
However, the issue which the two countries are currently arguing about can’t be pigeonholed in this manner.
Netanyahu is not mad at Obama because of a snub or hurt feelings about what the president said to Sarkozy or any of the other slights he has received or given. What he wants from the president is a commitment to do something about the Iranian nuclear threat. The American pretense that failed diplomacy and ineffective sanctions can still resolve the problem cannot be sustained. Netanyahu wants the United States to pledge to establish some red lines about Iran that would at the very least make it clear that at some point action rather than further talk would be contemplated. Were Netanyahu to gain such a pledge there’s little doubt he would gladly put up with all manner of personal indignities from the president. But that is something the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton firmly refuse to do.
If Netanyahu is frustrated and angry, it is not out of pique but the result of a growing conviction that the administration is not serious about making good on its pledges about Iran. You don’t have to be a mind reader to see that the Israeli fears the president is considering a course change should he receive a second term. Such a switch might lead him to push for a nuclear deal with Iran that would compromise Israel’s security.
This distrust is exacerbated by the fact that both men consider each other obnoxious and arrogant. They are both probably right about that, but that would mean nothing were they in agreement about the need to act in such a manner as to convince the Iranians that the only alternative to surrender at the negotiating table was the application of force. It is this profound difference on a question that is a matter of life and death to Israel that is at the heart of the row, not that the two get on each other’s nerves.
The personality story line serves Obama’s interests, since it provides him with a ready excuse for his shabby treatment of the Israelis and distracts us from the key foreign policy issue facing the United States. Though it is undoubtedly true that the quarrel has gotten personal, were it not so it would still be just as bitter.