Barack and Bibi, Every Day
Does it matter that a private conversation between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama in October turned into a Two-Minute Hate directed not at Emmanuel Goldstein, Big Brother’s chosen scapegoat in George Orwell’s 1984, but at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Sarkozy said he despised Netanyahu, whom he called a “liar.” The American president trumped the French president by complaining he had to deal with Netanyahu “every day.”
It shouldn’t matter, not at all. It would be nice if world leaders got along, the way it would be nice if we all got along, but they’re human beings just like anyone else, and they should be given the latitude to dislike whomever they choose. I suspect if you got Bibi Netanyahu on an open mic, he wouldn’t speak so kindly of Barack Obama either, and even Bibi’s admirers would have to concede Netanyahu has a unique capacity for alienating people who work with him and around him.
We can’t know what things Netanyahu might have said to Sarkozy to make the French president consider him a liar. We can and do know that Sarkozy plays a two-faced game with Israel, claiming to be a friend and then using his supposed friendly standing as window-dressing for unfriendly policies. Perhaps that two-faced game has been met with two Netanyahu faces.
It is surprising, however, that Obama would respond to Sarkozy’s statement by saying, “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day!” This was, to put it mildly, a peculiar thing for the president to say. Obama certainly does not have to deal with Netanyahu every day, or even every month.
So what could the president possibly have meant? What did his words betray? I suspect they reveal that Netanyahu plays a rather larger role in his emotional life as president than ought to be the case. He thinks about Netanyahu every day, in other words, and the thoughts are unhappy ones. He might think about the fact that he let it be known he flew into a rage when building in East Jerusalem commenced during a 2009 visit by Vice President Biden, did not accept Netanyahu’s apology, had his secretary of state call and yell at Netanyahu for 45 minutes—and then was forced to mend fences with the Jewish community when the disproportionate anger he was showing made some of his own close supporters deeply uneasy.
That fence-mending proved to be a self-defeating exercise a year later when Netanyahu came to the White House and a still steamed Obama pointedly insulted him (though the specifics of the insult remain unclear). Word of that insult circulated widely and again occasioned a certain degree of concern in the Jewish community—leading to what can only be called a certain degree of panic in the White House about the effect of that concern on Democratic fundraising and to yet more administration backtracking.
The gloves were off the third time, when Netanyahu responded to Obama’s prior aggressions with an aggressiveness of his own, delivering a peroration about Israel’s security needs during a press availability this year with Obama sitting by his side maintaining his famous calm (even as his very being seemed to radiate a desire to push a button and have an anvil drop from the rafters onto Bibi’s head).
Perhaps, though, it’s not really personal. Perhaps Netanyahu is in Obama’s thoughts every day because of what he has been warning the president and his administration about privately and publicly and in every way in between since taking office: Iran. Iran. Iran.
Iran—the country Obama sought to engage so badly that he said nothing as the 2009 uprising against the monstrous regime was breaking out. Iran—the country whose nuclear program he fantasized he could stymie that same year by bribing Vladimir Putin with the betrayal of American promises to the Czech Republic and Poland Iran—whose potential imminent nuclearization will be the foreign-policy challenge for Obama that dwarfs all others in the coming year.
So maybe the reason Obama has to deal with Netanyahu, every day, is that he is haunted by one overriding thought: This man I despise, this man is right.