Obama, Netanyahu make show of mending US-Israeli ties

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu affirmed US-Israeli closeness after a White House meeting Tuesday. But strains remain over Iran and the peace process.

Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo
President Barack Obama walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Netanyahu's car outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Tuesday.

Are Israeli-US ties on the mend? After the worst diplomatic crisis in recent memory earlier this year, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a White House summit Tuesday to demonstrate warmth and a commitment to continuing the “special” ties between the allies.

But in Israel, where many fault the Obama administration for the estrangement between the two sides and a chilly reception during the prime minister’s last visit in March, there is uncertainty as to whether the rapport in Washington will translate into a more harmonious foreign policy.

“Israelis are relieved to learn that the administration feels it’s necessary to show a friendlier face when Netanyahu is in town,” says Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. But “I don’t think Israelis were convinced that everything that Americans officials and Netanyahu said was the whole truth. They all realize this was some kind of a show."

Divided over peace process

Though the two administrations have been at odds over how to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and how to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions, President Obama insisted the differences had been exaggerated by the American and Israeli media.

The president also said that he believes Mr. Netanyahu wants peace, echoing similar praise that former President George W. Bush bestowed on former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002.

Both leaders smiling, Obama responded to reporters questions about the leaders’ chilly relationship by saying, “I’ve trusted Prime Minister Netanyahu since I met him” – a compliment that many Israelis might find ironic because of the domestic credibility deficit often ascribed to the prime minister by politicians and analysts. The summit was complemented by a meeting between First Lady Michelle Obama and Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

“They really bent over backwards to make it seem like business as usual,” says Mitchell Barak, who runs the Israeli polling firm, Keevoon. “But it doesn’t lend credibility when the leaders don’t acknowledge that there was a crisis and [pretend that] everything was fine all along... Israelis already have a problem with credibility of politicians.”

Still, Tuesday was a striking contrast to Netanyahu’s last White House visit, when, amid a flare-up over new Israeli building in East Jerusalem, the only press coverage comprised leaked anecdotes about how the president left Netanyahu alone while he retired to eat dinner.

The two administrations preceding Obama’s have been faulted on the peace process for deferring too much to Israeli interests, thus jeopardizing their role as a neutral mediator.

Obama reiterated his desire to see face-to-face negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians, who have agreed only to indirect talks unless they get new Israeli concessions. The president said he expected Netanyahu to take new confidence-building measures, but made no public mention of the fate of Israel’s temporary settlement freeze, which could further undermine the talks.

Why the US warmed up

Israeli commentators speculated that the change in atmosphere reflects White House recognition that confronting Netanyahu in public had yielded little progress in the peace talks and invited growing political isolation for its Middle Eastern ally. They also postulated that Obama wants to put the conflict behind to shore up support from American Jewish voters for Democratic candidates in upcoming Congressional elections.

“The two came to a meeting that was defined in advance in couples’ counseling terms as ‘reconciliation’… At the end of the meeting, understandings were announced,” wrote Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York in the daily Maariv newspaper. “This is apparently correct and accurate, and it is good that this was the case. But it would be a crude error to believe that a new path has indeed been launched, because the two countries truly differ on the question of how to advance towards ‘two states.’ ”

A Tel Aviv University poll from April found that only 43 percent of Israelis approved of Obama’s handling of US Israeli-ties, while 48 percent said he handled the relationship poorly. Netanyahu’s approval rating on that issue was 56 percent to 33 percent.

The same survey found that some 46 percent of Israelis believe that relations between the two countries have deteriorated recently. But that doesn’t mean the sides shouldn’t try to emphasize the positive, says Mr. Rosner, the columnist.

“We shouldn’t mock the administration or the Israeli government for trying to convince the rest of the world that relations are great,” he says. “Hopefully this will help both sides find common ground and language in the future that will not be a show for the public but common ground on policy issues.

“It was just music," he says, “but sometimes if you play the right music it will help spur more romance.”

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