Fight over between Obama and Netanyahu
For US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, there was nothing left to fight over after six years. The Iran nuclear deal battle is done and there is no peace with Palestinians on the horizon, so they decided to play nice and manage their unresolved tensions, for now at least.
“Both Obama and Netanyahu have a major stake in curbing their relationship,” said Aaron David Miller, vice-president for New Initiatives at the Wilson Center. Miller said he expected things to smooth over between the two “barring some unilateral acts by the Israelis that somehow pushes the administration back into a confrontational posture”.
Yet, the two did not trade favours ahead of their encounter. When Ran Baratz, Netanyahu’s aide, likened Obama to “the modern face of anti-Semitism”, Netanyahu just excluded him from the trip to Washington instead of firing him, as US Vice-President Joe Biden hinted. On the other hand, Obama decided not to intervene in the judicial process concerning convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who will remain under supervision in the United States for five years instead of leaving to Israel upon his release from prison on parole.
Prior to their November 9th meeting, the two leaders were courteous in their remarks. Obama did not mention controversial Israeli settlement activities and Netanyahu did not mention the Iran nuclear deal. The Israeli prime minister called it “one of the best meetings” he had with Obama and a senior White House official described it as “a forward-looking meeting”.
Acknowledging that peace is not within reach before the end of Obama’s term, the White House hopes Netanyahu can at least take concrete steps to lower tensions with the Palestinians. There is no appetite in Washington to push for an elusive peace process, as priorities have shifted in the Middle East.
Obama’s priority before 2011 was to open up to the Arab world and his sense was that keeping a cosy relationship with Israel would not help this overture. However, things have changed and Palestinian-Israeli peace is not on the radar of Arab leaders.
Miller argues that it is not only about Obama and Netanyahu. There are “basic differences and divisions between Washington and Israel’s views on two major issues of primary importance: what to do with Iran’s nuclear programme and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Miller said.
For Netanyahu, the trip to Washington was an opportunity to look beyond the arch for the next tenant of the White House. And since there was no purpose for the visit beyond mending fences with Obama, he had enough time to address pro-Hillary Clinton progressives at the Center for American Progress (CAP) to improve his standing with the Left after the bruises of the Iran deal.
However, there was dissent at CAP where some staff felt that Netanyahu should not be rewarded after his recent open support for Republicans and conservatives. This was a reminder how much Israeli politics is expected to have an effect on US presidential elections.
Leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has been saying she will have a better relationship with Netanyahu, in order to distance herself from Obama’s tensions with the Israeli government.
“Once there are nominees from both parties, and in fact [Clinton] is the Democratic nominee, the last thing she wants or the administration wants is a major fight with the Israelis in the last year of Obama’s term,” noted Miller.
Republican candidates are trying to exploit rift between Obama and Netanyahu but questions remain what effect a Republican president would have on US-Israeli relations.
“Whoever comes after Obama, whether Republican or Democrat, the style of the relationship will improve but sooner or later some of the differences will continue to exacerbate the relationship,” said Miller, who described the coming of a new president as just “a temporary fix” in this bilateral relationship.
Yet, Miller acknowledged that “if a Republican comes to power and Netanyahu stays in office another year or two, then I think tensions over Iran will ameliorate but on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it is just a different world view”.
History books will write about the complex relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, which Miller called “the least productive relationship between an Israeli prime minister and an American president that I have seen”. Like a boxing match, they both scored points. Netanyahu won the settlements battle, which derailed the US push for peace, and Obama won the Iranian nuclear deal.
“With Obama and Netanyahu, you have dysfunction without production,” Miller concluded.