President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu don't like each other but they will work toward a solution
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama know they need at least a good working relationshipBy Thomas M. Defrank AND Joseph Straw
March 4, 2012
WASHINGTON — Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the Oval Office Monday.
When President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu square off, the future of Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s fear of an atomic bomb-induced Holocaust and the stability of an ever-volatile region will hang in the balance.
It will be incredibly tense — the two apparently can’t stand one another.
“It’s about as bad a relationship as it could possibly be,” a Republican with well-placed contacts in the American Jewish community said of the high-stakes visit.
“They clearly do not personally like each other,” a prominent Democrat added of the lack of chemistry between a President who thinks Israel’s hard line on settlements is an obstacle to peace, and a prime minister who believes Obama has tilted toward the Arabs in hopes of brokering a Mideast peace deal.
Asked Friday about the meeting, Obama spokesman Jay Carney carefully described the duo’s interaction as a “productive, candid, functional relationship.”
Netanyahu is a Tel Aviv-born, MIT-educated, ex-commando who was wounded storming a hijacked airliner 30 years ago and fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Obama is a Harvard alum and liberal son of a Kenyan Muslim, who offered an olive branch to the Islamic world and told Israel to shrink its borders to those before 1967’s Six Day War.
While each nation sees the other as its closest ally, nearly three years working together have not brought the two leaders any closer. Things went south fast in March 2010, when Israel expanded settlements in heavily Arab East Jerusalem.
The U.S. had warned Israel the move endangered tenuous Arab-Israeli peace talks. Netanyahu not only went ahead, he announced the move on the eve of a visit by Vice President Biden. U.S. officials made little effort to hide their disgust.
Later that month, Netanyahu visited Obama at the White House. An Israeli newspaper reported Obama gave him a list of demands to ease the strained relations and advance the peace process. He then left to eat dinner while Netanyahu stewed alone for an hour in a meeting room. The White House disputed details of the rift, but not the gist.
Last May, Obama was irked when Netanyahu lectured him in the Oval Office, wagging his finger at his host.
“Bibi was very rude,” a U.S. Democratic pol said. “You don’t come into a man’s house and point your finger at him. He knows he has to be more housebroken this time.”
Then, last November, a hot microphone at an economic conference picked up Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy zinging Netanyahu.
“I cannot bear Netanyahu — he’s a liar,” Sarkozy dished.
“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama commiserated.
Rep. Pete King (R-L.I.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the Obama-Netanyahu relationship has a far bigger problem than personal animus.
“There’s certainly a lack of trust between the Obama government and the Netanyahu government,” King said, citing Israeli perception that early in his administration, Obama communicated a moral equivalency between Israel and states like Iran, whose leaders have vowed to take the Jewish state off the map.
“My belief is that Israel, particularly Netanyahu, is not confident with the Obama administration. There were really severe credibility problems early on, and it was felt that President Obama was hostile, confrontational to Netanyahu,” King added.
David Harris, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that despite personal strains, Obama and Netanyahu “share common convictions about Iran, with broad strategic overlap.”
“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” Harris said. “And military collaboration and security coordination . . . [HAVE\]never been closer.”
Despite their profound interpersonal difference, the two leaders understand the political realities that require a more cordial relationship — most importantly, Iran’s secret nuclear program and fears that it may be close to making a nuclear weapon, despite Iranian insistence that its program is for energy production.
Netanyahu must guard his nation against attack. For him, appeasement of Iran is a dangerous game.
Obama must stand by his nation’s ally while trying at nearly all costs to avoid plunging the U.S. into another war — all while aiming to shore up relations with Jewish Americans in an election year. Even with a recovering economy, Obama campaign aides understand traditional Jewish support can’t be taken for granted.
For his part, Netanyahu has begun to accommodate himself to Obama’s possible reelection.
“He thought Obama was a one-term President and he wouldn’t have to put up him much longer,” a politician who knows Netanyahu well told the Daily News. “Now he thinks Obama will be around another five years, so they have to have a good working relationship.”