It’s safe to say that Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama don’t like each other any more now than they did before their White House meeting on Monday. The real question — one that could determine war or peace, and even Obama’s reelection chances — is whether they trust each other any more than they did.
Seated before the cameras, Netanyahu deployed a tactic that he has displayed in the past, most recently at their last summit in May, when he embarrassed the president by raising controversial issues before reporters at a photo op. At that time the dispute was about Palestinian peace, and Netanyahu’s pique over Obama’s efforts to pressure the Israelis in talks. This time it was over how to handle the threat from Iran. “Israel must defend itself,” Netanyahu intoned gravely, as Obama sat next to him and looked at him stone-faced. “Israel has the sovereign right to make a final decision. My supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate."
Though he prefaced them with friendlier words than last time – when it comes to dealing with Iran, “we are you, and you are us,” Netanyahu told Obama — the prime minister’s remarks were biting because, the day before, Obama had made a major effort to assuage Israeli and Jewish concerns (and answer his GOP critics) by also affirming Israel’s right to act on its own.
In an interview with National Journal, a senior Israeli official insisted that Netanyahu was only “rephrasing” what Obama himself had said in his speech to the American Israel Public Affiars Committee on Sunday, but he could not explain why the prime minister felt a need to do that. But the official added, “What the president said in his interview with NBC at the Super Bowl, that the Israelis have not made the decision to attack Iran, that is correct.”
In the address to AIPAC on Sunday, Obama said that Iran’s leaders “should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.” But the president also sought to squelch what he called “loose talk" of war and to lash Netanyahu to Obama’s own timetable, which would use military force only after giving considerably more time for diplomacy to work. “Now is not the time for bluster,” Obama said as he urged the Israelis to wait – presumably until after the U.S. presidential election -- for harsher sanctions to take effect.
The question of mistrust between Obama and Netanyahu has never been as paramount as it is right now. Because the Israeli military's ability to disable Iran’s new underground enrichment facility at Fordo is in doubt, unless the Israelis strike Iran soon they may have to effectively hand over the military option to U.S. forces, which have bigger “bunker buster” bombs and other technology. But that would mean Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, would have to depend on Obama’s word that he will act.
The president sought to earn that trust in his Sunday speech, saying “there should not be a shred of doubt by now: When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” But doubts remain that he and Netanyahu can close the gap between their mutual “red lines” on Iran. Obama keeps saying he will not permit an Iranian “nuclear bomb,” while the Israelis insist they will act before Iran gets the full “capability” to make one, whether the bomb is actually built or not. The timetables for those two outcomes could be at least a year apart.
Asked about this issue, the senior Israeli official said he could not comment on the differences in timetables, but added: “The bottom line here is that America is a superpower and has capabilities that obviously Israel does not have. Israel is a smaller country. We’re obviously much closer and more directly threatened.”
Netanyahu, with his perfect English and savvy sense of PR, has always had a penchant for appearing to talk over Obama’s head to Republicans in Congress — and possibly the GOP presidential candidates — as well as the American people. At their last White House meeting, Netanyahu effectively rebuked Obama for suggesting that talks with the Palestinians should be based on the 1967 borders, or that the Palestinian refugee issue can be kept separate from the issues of "territory and security," as the president suggested. Netanyahu also slapped down Obama’s effort to set aside the hardest issues, such as resolving the question of whether to allow Palestinian refugees to return to land within Israel. Permitting them that right was integral to any other settlement of Israel’s "territory and security," Netanyahu said bluntly, and "everybody knows it's not going to happen."
But with Obama’s new effort to build a relationship with Israel and win back its trust, Netanyahu’s tactics may be riskier today, especially since he will almost certainly require U.S. military cooperation if he does strike Iran. “The game being played by Netanyahu, who openly hopes for Obama's defeat, is dangerous for Israel,” Amir Oren, a columnist for Haaretz, wrote on Monday. “It blurs the boundaries between the grand statesmanship of national-security considerations and the petty politics of meddling in someone else's elections.”
Obama, no political slouch himself, is also seeking to go around Netanyahu. Last week he appealed to the Israeli public in a long, exclusive interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, whose writings are widely read in the American Jewish community and Israel. He has also cultivated the friendship of Israeli President Shimon Peres, to whom he plans to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year.
The tit-for-tat before the cameras is reminiscent of shows of bluster before the cameras by U.S. and Soviet rivals during the Cold War, rather than what one would expect from an ally. And let that be a warning: For all the affectionate words, the U.S.-Israeli alliance will probably be severely tested in the months ahead.