Why Israel's Netanyahu doesn't fully trust Obama on Iran

Part of the friction comes from Obama making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority early on, putting off Netanyahu's demands for urgent action on the Iran nuclear program.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Barack Obama during their meeting, on March 5, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

Despite declarations of a strong alliance between the US and Israel at this year's AIPAC conference, it hasn’t eliminated the bad blood simmering not far below the surface of meetings between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past three years.

This week's installment – focused almost entirely on Iran rather than the Palestinian conflict – provided some jabs: In an address Sunday, Obama criticized the saber-rattling of Israeli leaders against Iran as counterproductive, while Mr. Netanyahu on Monday took pains to assert Israel’s right to decide on its own how to defend itself.  

While the clashes have ranged from issues of personality, to tactics on the peace process, to protocol snubs, there seems to be a consensus among Israeli observers that tension is primarily rooted in a clash of political outlook. It may not be in Netanyahu’s conservative DNA to have stable ties with a liberal like Obama.

"If he were in the US, Benjamin Netanyahu would serve as a Republican senator," says Shimon Shiffer, a political commentator for the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "[Netanyahu] would be attached to Newt Gingrich even if there was no Sheldon Adelson," the American Jewish businessman who backs both politicians.

Friction from the beginning

The two leaders were elected within months of each other at the end of 2008 and early 2009; there was friction almost immediately.

Israelis felt snubbed when Obama passed over Jerusalem to visit Muslim capitals around the Middle East. They were also uncomfortable with the new US president’s embrace of Arab public opinion while distancing himself from the policies of President George W. Bush, who was seen as an emphatically pro-Israel president.

But they were even more put out when Obama administration officials began pushing Netanyahu for a freeze in Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, putting him into a political hot seat at home and emboldening Palestinian leaders to boost their demands of Israel.  

Within months, Netanyahu was forced to declare support for a two-state solution and announce a moratorium on settlement building, something no Israeli prime minister had ever done. The Israeli press reported that some in Netanyahu’s circles became convinced that Obama was trying to sway public opinion in Israel against him to undermine Israel’s governing coalition.

“[Obama] put the Palestinian-Israeli issue on the top early on,” says Mitchell Barak, a former aide to Netanyahu who also cited the ideological divide between the two leaders. “He made Netanyahu do what he didn’t want to do, which is to say, 'I believe in a two-state solution.' "

"Most people" in the prime minister’s right-wing party don’t believe in the two-state solution, Mr. Barak adds.

Two years ago, Netanyahu was reportedly snubbed at the White House by Obama, who abruptly left the Israeli leader and his entourage, stoking speculation that the president was still fuming over a poorly timed announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem that had upended a visit by Vice President Joe Biden a few weeks earlier.

And Obama had to sit through an Oval Office lecture in May 2011 by Netanyahu about how returning to the 1967 border of the West Bank, which Obama had advocated as a baseline for border negotiations, would leave Israel with “indefensible” borders.

And just a few weeks ago, Netanyahu used Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to broadcast his frustration with the administrations failure to get tougher with Iran – venturing into the US political sphere.

Netanyahu shifts the focus to Iran

Who is getting the better of the relationship this time around?

It’s hard to tell. Israeli political observers said it didn’t appear that Netanyahu would come back to Israel having clarified Obama’s "red lines" for attack. Instead of being more forthcoming about an American offensive, Obama clearly said the time was now for diplomacy.

On the other hand, they noted that over the past half-year, Netanyahu had succeeded in shifting the allies' foreign policy focus to Iran from Palestinian statehood, an issue on which Israel is considerably more isolated.  

"The Iranian issue is becoming the agenda, and this ... is attributable to Netanyahu," says Aviv Bushinsky, a former aide to Netanyahu. "He’s a great marketing guy."

That said, the two leaders are ultimately stuck with each other and will be forced to accommodate one another, both for strategic and political reasons. Israel and the US need to show a united front to better deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for one.

And while Obama needs to placate Netanyahu to avoid alienating American Jewish constituents, the Israeli prime minister can’t be seen as undermining ties with Israel’s most important ally.

"In this case the interests of both leaders exceeds the personal relations," says Mr. Bushinsky. "Obama wants to get reelected, and Netanyahu also wants to gain. He can fight Obama, but he won’t achieve anything."

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