Obama and Netanyahu Have Put Aside Their ‘Dysfunction.’ For Now.

US President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 20, 2011. Obama announced on Thursday in his long-awaited speech on the 'Arab Spring' revolts that territorial lines in place before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war should be the basis for a peace deal, a move Netanyahu has long opposed. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

The cur­rent crisis in Ga­za has fea­tured close col­lab­or­a­tion between Pres­id­ent Obama and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu, a united front that is a tri­umph of na­tion­al in­terest over per­son­al pique and that is all the more re­mark­able giv­en the six-year his­tory of an­im­os­ity between the two lead­ers.

These men really don’t like each oth­er and have done little to hide their enmity since Obama took of­fice in 2009. In the past week, they seem to have put that on hold, con­ferred fre­quently, and al­lowed little day­light between the Amer­ic­an and Is­raeli po­s­i­tions.

But don’t think the hard feel­ings have gone away. This re­mains one of the most openly dys­func­tion­al re­la­tion­ships between two ma­jor al­lies any­where in the world. “Ac­tu­ally, I’m not sure ‘dys­func­tion’ is quite the right word,” said Mitchell Bard, dir­ect­or of the non­profit Amer­ic­an-Is­raeli Co­oper­at­ive En­ter­prise. “They des­pise each oth­er.”

In­ter­est­ingly—even re­fresh­ingly—neither side really tries very hard to deny the ten­sion in the Obama-Net­an­yahu per­son­al re­la­tion­ship. In­stead, White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est stressed the big pic­ture. “The U.S.-Is­rael al­li­ance is built upon dec­ades of close se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion and deep ties between our people,” he told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Any dif­fer­ences in opin­ion pale in com­par­is­on to the pri­or­ity the pres­id­ent places on main­tain­ing this strong re­la­tion­ship.”

Is­raeli Am­bas­sad­or to the United States Ron Der­mer gently chided NJ for ask­ing about this at a press break­fast this week hos­ted by The Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or. “The press fo­cuses all the time on the dif­fer­ences that ex­ist,” he com­plained. “We know that you are al­ways go­ing to fo­cus on ten­sion, and there have been times when we have not seen eye to eye with the ad­min­is­tra­tion on dif­fer­ent is­sues.”

Even for a dip­lo­mat, though, that is a re­mark­able un­der­state­ment. Al­most from the day of Obama’s in­aug­ur­a­tion in 2009, he and Net­an­yahu have clashed on policy and demon­strated how very dif­fer­ent they are in style and tem­pera­ment. In 2010, the ten­sions sur­faced dur­ing the prime min­is­ter’s vis­it to the White House. In 2011, Net­an­yahu pub­licly scol­ded and lec­tured Obama at the White House. Also in 2011, an open mi­cro­phone at the G-20 sum­mit in Cannes cap­tured French Pres­id­ent Nic­olas Sarkozy and Obama dis­cuss­ing Net­an­yahu. “I can’t stand him. He’s a li­ar,” said Sarkozy. “You’re tired of him—what about me? I have to deal with him every day,” re­spon­ded Obama. In 2012, Net­an­yahu did everything but wear a Mitt Rom­ney pin, leav­ing no doubt he would prefer that the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee beat Obama. And the pres­id­ent re­turned the fa­vor when he gave an in­ter­view a week be­fore the Is­raeli elec­tion, in which he was highly crit­ic­al of the prime min­is­ter. Jef­frey Gold­berg, who in­ter­viewed Obama for the art­icle for Bloomberg, re­por­ted that the pres­id­ent viewed Net­an­yahu as a “polit­ic­al cow­ard.”

Des­pite the verbal shots, both men were reelec­ted. Both were angry. But both came to real­ize that they would have to rise above their mu­tu­al enmity, that the al­li­ance was more im­port­ant. “Both of them re­acted to the elec­tion res­ults,” said Bard, who formerly ed­ited the Near East Re­port, the weekly news­let­ter of the in­flu­en­tial Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. “Net­an­yahu re­cog­nized he was go­ing to have to deal with Obama four more years, and Obama re­cog­nized there is not much chance that Net­an­yahu would be un­seated. And that has forced them to work to­geth­er and to be a little more sens­it­ive to each oth­er’s con­cerns and to try not to take meas­ures or make state­ments that would in­flame the re­la­tion­ship.”

That ap­proach has been on dis­play this week as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been solidly be­hind Is­rael’s mil­it­ary op­er­a­tion in Ga­za, mostly keep­ing out of pub­lic view any hor­ror at the rising ci­vil­ian cas­u­al­ties in­side Ga­za. Both sides also point to the Iron Dome de­fense sys­tem that has kept the toll down in­side Is­rael. “As the suc­cess of Iron Dome in sav­ing Is­raeli lives has demon­strated, our se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion un­der this ad­min­is­tra­tion has been un­pre­ced­en­ted,” said Earn­est.

And Is­rael has no­ticed.

“On se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion, we are talk­ing about un­pre­ced­en­ted se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion…. And we are ap­pre­ci­at­ive of the fact that we have been able to have the Iron Dome sys­tem that has been work­ing so well. In­tel­li­gence-shar­ing is very good,” said Dern­er. The am­bas­sad­or stressed that these mat­ters are more im­port­ant than bruised per­son­al feel­ings.

“For me, in the re­la­tion­ship between the U.S. and Is­rael, the rub­ber meets the road when Is­rael is forced to de­fend it­self and then the ques­tion be­comes, where is the pres­id­ent of the United States? And I will tell you now that this is the second time … where the pres­id­ent has been back­ing Is­rael’s right to de­fend it­self in the strongest pos­sible terms…. I don’t think that sup­port could have been any bet­ter than it was.” The oth­er time cited by Dern­er was Obama’s sup­port for the Pil­lar of De­fense op­er­a­tion, a mil­it­ary strike in­to Ga­za in Novem­ber 2012.

In the cur­rent crisis, Dern­er said he has talked “ba­sic­ally every day with either the White House or the State De­part­ment, a lot of times with both.” He said Is­rael sees “very broad sup­port for Is­rael’s right to de­fend it­self.”

No one finds that level of sup­port more strik­ing than Aaron Dav­id Miller, a key State De­part­ment ad­viser on the Middle East from 1978 to 2003. Work­ing closely with three Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ents and two Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ents, Miller has called the Obama-Net­an­yahu re­la­tion­ship “the most dys­func­tion­al” ever. What has changed is that the two lead­ers have found a way to over­come the hard feel­ings. “It’s clearly,” Miller told NJ, “a dys­func­tion­al re­la­tion­ship on a per­son­al level, which has be­come very func­tion­al in large part be­cause of the nature of the U.S.-Is­rael re­la­tion­ship and a set of com­mon per­cep­tions of chal­lenges and threats even though there are dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to rem­edy them.”

He said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been “in­cred­ibly sup­port­ive of Is­raeli ac­tions over the course of the last 12 days.” But that does not mean dif­fer­ences do not re­main between the two gov­ern­ments. Am­bas­sad­or Der­mer ac­know­ledged dif­fer­ences on nuc­le­ar talks with Ir­an and the Middle East peace pro­cess. On neither is­sue is either side budging, al­though the White House holds out hope that pro­gress in the P5+1 talks with Ir­an may win over a skep­tic­al Net­an­yahu. The Is­rael­is re­main highly skep­tic­al. But even as ne­go­ti­at­ors try to ham­mer out the dis­agree­ments, the ap­proach taken this month by Obama and Net­an­yahu backs up Bard’s as­sess­ment: “These men know now they are stuck with each oth­er, and they are now look­ing for ways to co­oper­ate on the is­sues.”

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