Frenemies: The U.S. and Israel Clash. Again.

The current fight is only the latest between leaders of the two nations.

Backdropped by Jerusalem's Old City Ottoman walls, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with Jerusalem's mayor Nir Barkat (unseen) on February 23, 2015.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Feb. 28, 2015, 4:21 a.m.

When Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu first vis­ited the White House as Is­rael’s prime min­is­ter in 1996, things didn’t get off to such a great start.

Un­deterred by the razor-thin nature of his up­set vic­tory, Net­an­yahu was on the of­fens­ive from the start against Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton, try­ing to re­shape Amer­ic­an policy. Clin­ton was so vexed after that first meet­ing that he ven­ted to aides, “Who’s the f — ing su­per­power here?”

The fam­ously thin-skinned Net­an­yahu even tried to get Clin­ton to fire his press sec­ret­ary, Mike Mc­Curry. “He didn’t like how I was de­scrib­ing the meet­ings between the two lead­ers,” Mc­Curry told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “When we went in­to the Oval Of­fice for one ses­sion, he saw me against the wall, poin­ted at me, and told the pres­id­ent, ‘That one, over there, is one of your prob­lems.’”

Clin­ton later emerged from a private ses­sion with Net­an­yahu and said the prime min­is­ter again lob­bied for the spokes­man to be fired. “He wants you out,” a be­mused Clin­ton told Mc­Curry, who stayed at the White House un­til 1998.

Now, al­most two dec­ades later, Net­an­yahu has set his sights high­er. This time, he’d like to re­place the pres­id­ent.

Net­an­yahu left no doubt in 2012 that he wanted his old friend Mitt Rom­ney to beat Pres­id­ent Barack Obama. And his de­cision to blind­side Obama by ac­cept­ing Speak­er John Boehner’s in­vit­a­tion to speak to a joint meet­ing of Con­gress is a clear slap at a pres­id­ent who has a dif­fer­ent policy to­ward Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram. His per­sist­ence in giv­ing the speech has sparked a round of stor­ies de­clar­ing U.S.-Is­raeli re­la­tions at an all-time low.

But clashes between the lead­ers of the two staunch al­lies are more com­mon than it seems.

Some of the dif­fer­ences are simply polit­ic­al. Les Fran­cis, who was deputy chief of staff to Demo­crat­ic Pres­id­ent Jimmy Carter, re­calls a meet­ing of high-level Carter aides when Men­a­chem Be­gin, rep­res­ent­ing the hard-line Likud Party, won elec­tion in June 1977. “When it was clear that Likud was go­ing to win, a pall went over the room,” Fran­cis told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

Some­times the dif­fer­ences come from above. Late in the Yom Kip­pur War in 1973, Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Henry Kis­sing­er placed a des­per­ate call from the White House Situ­ation Room to Is­raeli Am­bas­sad­or Simcha Din­itz. Kis­sing­er was furi­ous that all White House mes­sages to Labor Party Prime Min­is­ter Golda Meir were be­ing blocked and Is­raeli troops were ig­nor­ing U.N. cease-fire res­ol­u­tions and Amer­ic­an calls to stop their drive in­to Egypt. “Je­sus Christ,” yelled Kis­sing­er in­to the phone. “Don’t you real­ize how im­port­ant this is?”

Ac­cord­ing to Pres­id­ents in Crisis, a new his­tory just out by Mi­chael K. Bo­hn, who ran the Situ­ation Room for sev­er­al years, Kis­sing­er sud­denly be­came sub­dued at the am­bas­sad­or’s quiet reply: “Henry, my gov­ern­ment might be more per­suaded if you in­voke the name of a dif­fer­ent proph­et.”

Pres­id­ents Ron­ald Re­agan and George H.W. Bush were of­ten frus­trated by Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Shamir. Per­haps the most pub­lic crisis in the re­la­tion­ship came in 1991 when Bush and Shamir clashed over the one top­ic that has di­vided al­most every pres­id­ent from al­most every prime min­is­ter — Is­rael’s con­struc­tion of set­tle­ments in oc­cu­pied Palestini­an ter­rit­or­ies.

Un­happy over the im­pact the set­tle­ments were hav­ing on the peace pro­cess, Bush held up $10 bil­lion in loan guar­an­tees for Is­rael. Bush was blas­ted by one Is­raeli Cab­in­et min­is­ter as a “li­ar” and an “anti-Semite.”

No such rhet­or­ic has been aimed at Obama in the cur­rent show­down. But the ob­vi­ous per­son­al enmity between Obama and Net­an­yahu is al­most cer­tainly the worst ever seen between any U.S. pres­id­ent and any Is­raeli prime min­is­ter. Aaron Dav­id Miller, who worked on Middle East is­sues at the State De­part­ment un­der both parties and six sec­ret­ar­ies of State, said this is dif­fer­ent from those earli­er peri­ods of con­flict or ar­gu­ment.

“This is, if not the low point, then something that comes pretty close,” Miller said. “That is be­cause it has las­ted since 2009, and it has proven to be sin­gu­larly un­pro­duct­ive.” Even when earli­er pres­id­ents fought with or shouted at earli­er prime min­is­ters, they still were able to reach agree­ments and make pro­gress.

“Clin­ton and Net­an­yahu had all kinds of dis­con­nects,” he said. “But they still man­aged to pro­duce sig­ni­fic­ant achieve­ments by co­oper­at­ing with one an­oth­er. Here, you have dys­func­tion without pro­duc­tion.”

The situ­ation is made more dire by what seems to be a politi­ciz­a­tion of the re­la­tion­ship, Miller ad­ded. “Re­pub­lic­ans are align­ing more of­ten than not with Likud hard-line politi­cians. Demo­crats, with more cent­rist or left-wing Is­raeli views and politi­cians,” he said. “That com­pletes the dys­func­tion.”

The most re­cent pub­lic poll sup­ports that con­ten­tion. A Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey con­duc­ted Feb­ru­ary 18 through 22 and re­leased Fri­day shows a wide gap between Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an ap­prov­al of Net­an­yahu. Fully 53 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans view Net­an­yahu fa­vor­ably com­pared with only 28 per­cent of Demo­crats. In­de­pend­ents fall in between the parties, with 38 per­cent view­ing him fa­vor­ably. Un­fa­vor­able views of Net­an­yahu were re­gistered by 21 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans, 26 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents, and 35 per­cent of Demo­crats.

Miller lamen­ted what he called “a per­fect storm” of factors that, com­bined with the per­son­al enmity between the two lead­ers, brought Net­an­yahu and Obama to this week’s clash over the speech to Con­gress just two weeks be­fore the Is­raeli elec­tion. “Three things brought this on,” he said. “First, the en­dgame on Ir­an is ap­proach­ing with a fun­da­ment­al di­vide between Net­an­yahu’s view of the risks and un­cer­tain­ties of the deal and the pres­id­ent’s view. Num­ber two is a Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Con­gress that is de­term­ined to as­sert it­self and hates the pres­id­ent’s Ir­an policy. And num­ber three is the Is­raeli elec­tion.”

But Miller warned against those who fear that this clash between Obama and Net­an­yahu will re­define or ru­in the re­la­tion­ship between the two al­lies. “I nev­er be­lieve in the sky-is-fall­ing the­ory of the U.S.-Is­raeli re­la­tion­ship. As wor­ried as Is­rael’s sup­port­ers are and as pleased as Is­rael’s de­tract­ors may be, this re­la­tion­ship is go­ing to sur­vive and re­main re­si­li­ent. Be­cause there is no place else for these two to go,” he said. “A fun­da­ment­al breach? I just don’t see it.”

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