Barack Obama’s dislike of Benjamin Netanyahu was not a state secret prior to the publication of his candid exchange about the Israeli prime minister with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. So the fact the two have a low opinion of Netanyahu and consider dealing with him to be a burden isn’t exactly news. But while much of the commentary about this kerfuffle has centered on the question of who should be most embarrassed by the revelation — Netanyahu or his two highly placed critics — there is a more important point here.
Netanyahu has a well-earned reputation as a prickly and somewhat unpleasant fellow to deal with–in Israeli political circles as well as the world of international diplomacy. But when Sarkozy and Obama grouse about him, the resentment they are giving voice to hasn’t all that much to do with whether or not Netanyahu is a charm school dropout. What really annoys them is his inherent skepticism about the peace process.
Despite his reputation as a hard-liner (a phrase treated in many press accounts as if it were part of his name), Netanyahu has a long record of attempts to conciliate the Palestinians in order to make peace. During his first term as prime minister in the 1990’s he signed two agreements conceding parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. He enacted a settlement-building freeze in the West Bank during his current administration and formally endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state. But despite all of this, Netanyahu has never consented to playing the familiar game in which the onus for peace is placed only on Israel to make concessions and not the Palestinians.
Throughout both of his terms as Israel’s leader, Netanyahu has insisted on pointing out the failures of the Palestinians to abide by their Oslo commitments. Rather than meekly nod along when Obama or Sarkozy speak of the need for Israel to relinquish territory, Netanyahu has had the chutzpah to publicly talk back to them about Israel’s rights and not just its immediate security needs. Though he has sometimes given in to their demands if he thought it was in his country’s interests, he has also made it clear that doing so is a grave concession that could bring deadly consequences. Any Israeli who speaks in this manner, which necessarily complicates the efforts of the peace processers to ignore the Palestinians’ reluctance to make peace, is not going to be liked.
Much like Menachem Begin, the first member of his party to serve as Israel’s prime minister, Netanyahu cannot play the unctuous diplomat. Though he has made concessions and sought to reach out to other countries as well as ably making his country’s case before the American people, he does so as a proud, stiff-necked Jew, not a supplicant or a starry-eyed dreamer who is beguiled by an unrealistic vision about the intentions of his Palestinian negotiating partners.
Netanyahu has more than his share of personal flaws. But what Sarkozy and Obama are telling us is that the Israeli won’t play by their rules and knuckle under when his country’s rights are imperiled. Though he values Israel’s alliance with the United States, Netanyahu’s idea of his responsibilities is one in which he prioritizes defending his country’s interests over making nice with heads of state.
It should be conceded that his tactics don’t always work well, and he won’t win any foreign popularity contests. But the issue here isn’t Netanyahu. An Israeli leader who won’t acquiesce to the lies other leaders tell about the Palestinians’ peaceful intentions will never be loved. Sarkozy and Obama don’t resent Netanyahu as much as they do Israel.