Obama-Netanyahu crisis meeting: Can leaders overcome lack of trust?

Obama hosted Netanyahu at the White House Monday to discuss how to resolve their differences over Iran and its nuclear program. But the lack of trust on both sides is deep.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Monday, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

The two men having lunch in the White House Monday – Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have what the American president describes as a “functional” relationship.

It’s not a very warm word, from a president whose style in any case is not to slap the back of or cozy up to the world leaders he deals with. Mr. Obama is not the type to spontaneously massage another leader’s shoulders, as George W. Bush so memorably – and awkwardly – did with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But Obama’s depiction masks only partially the tensions that course through the two leaders’ relations. The root problem is a mutual lack of trust.

At this meeting the overriding issue is Iran, and the lack of trust goes something like this: Mr. Netanyahu does not trust Obama to abandon soon enough his emphasis on diplomatic measures (including toughened economic sanctions) as a means of compelling Iran to abandon progress towards a nuclear weapon; and Obama does not trust Netanyahu to give sanctions a chance to work, sparing the region what by most accounts would be a devastating military confrontation.

But the lack of trust was not born of the two leaders’ differing perspectives on Iran. Before Iran the sore spot was the peace process, a topic that – to what should be Netanyahu’s relief – will barely figure in Monday’s discussions. The problems began at the outset of the Obama administration, when the president startled Netanyahu by pressuring Israel to freeze new settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Obama smoldered when Israel chose a visit by Vice President Biden in 2010 to announce a new round of construction in East Jerusalem.

But a low point came in May 2011 when, during Netanyahu’s previous White House visit, the Israeli leader lectured the American president live on television over Obama’s plan to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by starting with border issues and based on pre-occupation 1967 borders.

The White House was furious. Might the best evidence that Obama is still not over that affront be that no joint press conference was scheduled for today’s meeting? White House spokesman Jay Carney is not even holding a daily press briefing Monday, leading one White House correspondent to quip that the Obama team appears to be in “duck and dive” mode.       

This being a US presidential election year, Obama can’t allow his merely “functional” relations with Netanyahu to color broader US-Israel ties. In his speech Sunday to the influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Obama stated vigorously, “I’ve got Israel’s back,” and he made the case that his administration’s stepped-up military aid to Israel and closer intelligence sharing between the two countries is the best evidence that America remains Israel’s best friend and holds resolutely to Israel’s right to defend itself against any foe.

For his part, Netanyahu – who learned from the poor reviews he received upon returning home last May that publicly disrespecting the US president can be politically perilous – had positive words for Obama’s AIPAC speech. Speaking on a stop in Canada Sunday before arriving in Washington, Netanyahu said that “perhaps most of all” he appreciated Obama’s “declaration that Israel must be capable of defending itself, by itself, against any threat.”

Netanyahu repeated those words at the White House Monday, as the two leaders offered brief statements before a gaggle of reporters before moving on to private conversation. Each leader repeated his theme: Obama said that while he believes diplomatic pressure can still work with Iran, his policy is not simply containment of a nuclear Iran, but rejection, by all means that might be necessary, of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu thanked Obama for his strong words in his AIPAC speech the night before, but his emphasis was, much like Obama’s, not on the two leaders’ relationship but on the unshakable ties between their two countries.

Noting that the US and Israel face “common enemies,” Netanyahu said, “Iran’s leaders know that. For them, you are the Great Satan. We’re the Little Satan. For them, we are you and you are us,” he added, “and you know something Mr. President? At least on that last point, I think they’re right.”

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