Obama and Netanyahu: A Story of Slights and Crossed Signals


WASHINGTON — For President Obama, it was a day of celebration. He had just signed the most important domestic measure of his presidency, his health care program. So when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrived at the White House for a hastily arranged visit, it was likely not the main thing on his mind.

To White House officials, it was a show of respect to make time for Mr. Netanyahu on that day back in March 2010. But Mr. Netanyahu did not see it that way. He felt squeezed in, not accorded the rituals of such a visit. No photographers were invited to record the moment. “That wasn’t a good way to treat me,” he complained to an American afterward.

The tortured relationship between Barack and Bibi, as they call each other, has been a story of crossed signals, misunderstandings, slights perceived and real. Burdened by mistrust, divided by ideology, the leaders of the United States and Israel talked past each other for years until the rupture over Mr.Obama’s push for a nuclear agreement with Iran led to the spectacle of Mr. Netanyahu denouncing the president’s efforts before a joint meeting of Congress.

Mr. Netanyahu arrives at the White House on Monday for his first visit since he met with President Obama in October of last year. They are scheduled to discuss a new security agreement and ways to counter Iran. CreditMichael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency

As Mr. Netanyahu arrives at the White House on Monday for his first visit in more than a year, both leaders have reasons to put the past behind them. They will discuss a new security agreement and ways to counter Iran.

But few believe their relationship can ever be more than coolly transactional. Undergirding their personal disconnect are different world views. Mr. Obama sees Mr. Netanyahu as captured by a hard-line philosophy that blocks progress. Mr. Netanyahu considers Mr. Obama hopelessly naïve about one of the world’s most volatile neighborhoods.

“They have a fraught relationship and it’s fueled by a belief on the part of both of them that the other is trying to screw them, trip them up, thwart their policies, corner them, ambush them,” said Martin Indyk, the president’s former special envoy to the Middle East. “They each have a number of cases where they feel the other acted in bad faith.”

Uzi Arad, Mr. Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, said no single issue had caused the rift. “It was a gradual thing that widened over time,” he said. “History will probably say that both leaders mismanaged their relationship. It’s not one party.”
Competitive Relationship

If the current animosity between the United States and Israel is not unique in the history of relations between the two governments, it is the worst in more than two decades. Mr. Netanyahu feels disrespected and misled by a president he thinks does not have Israel’s best interests at heart. Mr. Obama feels aggrieved at being portrayed as anti-Israel even though he has provided extensive security aid and fought Palestinian efforts to seek recognition as a state at the United Nations.

“My sense is they each thought they could get the better of the other,” said Mara Rudman, a former deputy envoy for Middle East peace under Mr. Obama. “They’re competitive. And I don’t know that that sense of competition ever dissipated.”

Yaakov Amidror, another former national security adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, said the differences lay more in the substance than their personalities. “I’m not saying there are no personal issues — for sure, at the end of the day, they are human beings,” he said. “But it is much more about how we evaluate the situation than how we evaluate each other.”

Given their vastly different positions, friction between the liberal Democrat and the conservative Likud leader was inevitable. But it was exacerbated by choices along the way.

Friends and critics say Mr. Obama was never adequately attuned to the sensitivities of the alliance. Not known for warm relations with foreign leaders, Mr. Obama had difficulty understanding why Mr. Netanyahu would not trust him, and made certain decisions worse by not preparing the Israeli leader for what he was going to do.

Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, chose the most incendiary interpretations of Mr. Obama’s policies, preferring to express outrage instead of emphasizing common ground, according to his own advisers. His suspicions were fanned by visiting Republican lawmakers and conservative patrons, like the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who had their own complaints about the president.

When they talk — and they have not spoken since a phone call in July — the conversations are robust and pointed. Mr. Netanyahu makes points bluntly, restraining where possible what his former ambassador, Michael Oren, described in a memoir as a “monumental rage capable, it sounded, of cracking a telephone receiver.” Mr. Obama is more reserved but may come off as condescending and rarely lets a point go unrebutted.

A phone call between them can last up to 90 minutes. “They like debating each other, to an extent,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser.

After all, they have done it a lot.
Rising Tensions

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu first met in 2007 when their aides hastily arranged a chat at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in a janitor’s office. Mr. Netanyahu, then in the opposition, was heading home and Mr. Obama, running for president, was returning from the campaign trail. They “actually had chemistry,” Mr. Rhodes said.

Mr. Netanyahu was impressed. “He’s got it, he can beat Hillary,” he told advisers afterward, according to Mr. Arad, referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was also seeking the Democratic nomination.

They met again, in July 2008, when Mr. Obama had secured the Democratic nomination and was visiting Jerusalem. The day before, a Palestinian had rammed a bulldozer into Israelis at a bus stop. After talking about security, Mr. Netanyahu suggested they walk to the attack site. Mr. Obama demurred, seeing it as showmanship.

Once he was president, Mr. Obama made obtaining a Middle East peace agreement a priority, announcing the appointment of former Senator George J. Mitchell as special envoy two days after taking office. “I really want to try to do something here,” Mr. Mitchell recalled the president telling him.

As a start, Mr. Obama decided to press Israel to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, urged a strong stand saying otherwise Mr. Netanyahu, now prime minister, would “walk all over us,” as Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, put it in her memoir.

The decision was included in a White House briefing paper without asking Mr. Mitchell first. Mr. Mitchell supported the idea. But others did not.

“My advice was not to do it,” recalled James B. Cunningham, then ambassador to Israel. “It didn’t seem to me to be the right way to start building a relationship.”

When Mr. Netanyahu came to Washington in May 2009, he felt blindsided by the demand. Emerging from nearly two hours alone with Mr. Obama, the prime minister “looked ashen,” Mr. Arad said, from “the direct body blow.”

The tension grew when Mr. Obama gave a speech in Cairo reaching out to the Muslim world but did not also visit Israel. While he urged Muslims to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, he seemed to justify it because of the Holocaust rather than centuries of Jewish roots in the region.

“One of the mistakes frankly was when he went to Cairo, he should have gone to Israel at the same time,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Settlement Issue

At the heart of the trouble, according to Dennis B. Ross, another former American special envoy, was a decision by Mr. Obama that he needed to establish distance from Israel to build credibility in the Arab world.

In his new book, “Doomed to Succeed,” and in an interview, Mr. Ross said Mr. Obama had told Jewish leaders that he would not continue President George W. Bush’s policy of allowing “no daylight” between the United States and Israel. Mr. Ross attributed this to Malcolm Hoenlein, chief executive of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

In an interview last week, Mr. Hoenlein described the Jewish leaders’ meeting with Mr. Obama. “I said, ‘The lesson of history is there shouldn’t be daylight between the two countries because their enemies will exploit it,’” he recalled. “He said, ‘Eight years, no daylight. Eight years, no progress.’”

Mr. Ross argues that distancing from Israel has never generated the Arab cooperation that presidents expect. But aides said Mr. Obama simply believed in honestly airing differences, not creating distance. “This was not the guiding basis of our policy,” Mr. Rhodes said. “The guiding basis was to be energetic for a two-state solution.”

Either way, the settlement freeze became the defining issue. Mr. Netanyahu finally agreed to a 10-month moratorium, but when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. visited Israel in March 2010, he was caught off guard by the announcement of a new housing project in East Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu assured him it was done without his knowledge but Mr. Obama was furious, leading to the tense meeting at the White House0, without the photographs, a session made worse by exaggerated stories of shabby behavior in Israeli news media.

The Palestinians resisted talks until three weeks before the freeze was to expire and Mr. Netanyahu refused to extend it. The process collapsed before really beginning.

Disillusioned, Mr. Mitchell resigned, convinced that Washington had let the settlement issue become too central. “My own view is the failure was not one of policy but clearly articulating a policy,” he said last month. “We did not do a good job of explaining that our request for a settlement freeze was not a precondition for negotiating.”

Egypt Uprising

Mr. Netanyahu’s conviction that Mr. Obama did not understand the Middle East was reinforced by the Arab Spring uprisings, particularly the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. He had been a friend of the Israelis, who were appalled at what they saw as “our throwing Mubarak under the bus,” said Mr. Cunningham, the former American ambassador. “It was kind of a shock to them.”

Ties grew frostier when, the day before a Netanyahu visit, Mr. Obama gave a speech trying to revive the peace process and endorsing the prevailing borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war as the basis of a deal, along with mutually agreed land swaps. When the Israeli leader landed in Washington, Mr. Oren said he “saw fire in Netanyahu’s eyes.”

Mr. Obama told Mr. Netanyahu his position was not meaningfully different from previous American policy, and emphasized the land swaps. But when reporters were allowed into the Oval Office, Mr. Netanyahu sternly lectured Mr. Obama in front of the cameras. Mr. Netanyahu felt emboldened; Mr. Obama felt burned.

Benefit of the doubt was gone. When President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was overheard calling Mr. Netanyahu a liar, Mr. Obama replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Division Over Iran

The relationship further deteriorated during the 2012 presidential race when Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, traveled to Jerusalem and Mr. Netanyahu embraced him. But the president’s victory ushered in a thaw; he helped broker a truce to fighting in Gaza that fall and decided to make Israel the first foreign destination of his second term, even without tangible progress to justify it.

“Several of us were arguing we have to wait for the moment,” recalled Mr. Rhodes. “He said, ‘I just need to go to Israel because we can’t simply wait for all the stars to align.’”

The visit in March 2013 became “the high-water mark in their relationship,” according to Mr. Rhodes. Mr. Obama spoke Hebrew, quoted the Talmud and visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. He charmed Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, at a private dinner and held her chair out at the public state dinner. Mr. Netanyahu responded by settling a dispute with Turkey at Mr. Obama’s request.

Several months later, John Kerry, who had succeeded Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state, surprised Mr. Obama by persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to negotiations.

“I’m more pessimistic than all of you,” the president told the negotiators, according to Mr. Indyk. For good reason. The new process eventually collapsed just like the first.

Then came Mr. Obama’s decision not to follow through on threats of airstrikes against Syria if it was found to use chemical weapons. When it did, he instead struck a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Arguably, it was a better result for Israel since it removed a threat. But Israelis saw irresolution: If Mr. Obama would not keep his word to punish Syria, they feared he would not use force to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb if necessary.

As it turned out, the United States had been conducting secret talks with Iran brokered by Oman. “What the Americans did is try to deceive us,” said Mr. Amidror, the former security adviser. “They didn’t tell us about Oman. That was not the turning point, but it gave those who still had some trust in America a very good reason to go to the other side.”

Mr. Netanyahu was outraged. “He was shouting at Kerry, out of control,” Mr. Indyk recalled. Publicly, the Israeli leader called an interim nuclear deal a “historic mistake.” Mr. Obama called with reassurances to no avail.

Mr. Ross, who had left government, visited the prime minister during the call with the president. After hanging up, Mr. Netanyahu said Mr. Obama had indicated that domestic politics ruled out the use of force and therefore required a deal.

“I told Bibi, ‘No way did he say that, no way,’” Mr. Ross recalled. “I’m convinced they just talked past each other.”

Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, was angered by Mr. Netanyahu’s belligerence. She later told Abraham H. Foxman, now the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, that Mr. Netanyahu did everything but “use the N-word” to describe the president. Mr. Foxman interpreted that as hyperbole not an accusation of racism.

In the midst of his own re-election campaign last winter, Mr. Netanyahu challenged the president in his address to Congress. Mr. Netanyahu saw Washington’s hand in Israeli politics when a former Obama adviser helped an Israeli opposition group. Mr. Obama was angered by the prime minister’s election-eve statements that there would be no Palestinian state during his tenure and warning about Arab Israeli voters tilting the elections.

Mr. Netanyahu walked back the comments. But Mr. Obama has since told Jewish leaders that he too has given up on a two-state settlement on his watch. “He said he knows he’s not going to have a Palestinian state in his term, but he will help set the stage for it,” Mr. Hoenlein recalled.CONTINUE READING THE MAIN STORY138COMMENTS

In those meetings, Mr. Obama expressed distress. “He bore his soul about how much he cares about Israel,” Mr. Foxman said. “It was painful, hurtful. ‘I care about Israel, I love Israel.’” Why did Mr. Netanyahu not understand?

With the Iran deal finalized, the two sides have talked about moving on. But it will not be easy, as was made clear last week when Mr. Netanyahu appointed a diplomacy chief who had accused Mr. Obama of anti-Semitism.

“There’s a lot of water under the bridge,” Mr. Indyk said, “and it’s very hard to imagine they can do anything but paper over their differences at this point for the sake of common interests.”


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