The Ongoing Obama-Netanyahu Feud: Genuine Outrage or Cynical Strategy?

The latest spy story in the Wall Street Journal is a shot across the bow meant to show that U.S.-Israeli tensions won’t stop at the top.

Yonatan Zindel/Flash 90

Recently we learned about the unfortunate Chen Hongzhi, a 25 year old Taiwanese who has “the memory of a fish,” as the headlines noted. Hongzhi suffers from an acute amnesia that enables him to retain memories for only 5-10 minutes. He maintains a daily diary in order to keep track of the course of his life, which is what differentiates him from the way Israel handles its relationship with the United States: we don’t even keep a diary.

The problem is not with our long term memory, which is superb: we remember what the biblical Amalek did to us as if they were here just a minute ago, we lambast Haman the Wicked in Congress as if he was a jihadist not far away and we relive Munich, 1938 anew every day, like Bill Murray in the immortal Groundhog Day. And our amnesia is acutely selective as well: every harm or insult directed at us is retained for generations but our affronts to others are erased on the spot.

That’s why, when the White House doesn’t immediately accept Netanyahu’s not completely clear clarification on Palestinian statehood and doesn’t make do with his not quite apologetic apology towards Israel’s Arab citizens, we are taken aback by the President’s refusal to get over it and let bygones be bygones. And when someone in the administration decides to sully our name by leaking questionable allegations of diplomatic espionage to the Wall Street Journal, we are consumed right away by the righteous rage of an innocent bystander who is assaulted in broad daylight for no obvious reason.

But life doesn’t begin with the wretched statements made by Netanyahu in the waning hours of the election campaign: if that was the case, we’d be over it by now. In fact, Netanyahu’s crass electioneering, which sounded jarringly disingenuous and, yes, racist to many American ears, is like a straw that broke an already fractured back. The White House is suffering from an accumulation of six years of bad and bitter memories of clashes, insults and humiliations from Netanyahu that have turned “toxic,” as former Secretary of State James Baker said at the J Street Conference on Monday night: the freshest and most noxious of these is Netanyahu’s speech in Congress. Given the pace of events in the Holy Land, that controversy might as well have occurred in the Bronze Age as far as most Israelis are concerned, but in the White House is still an open and bleeding wound that is far from healing. Together with the disappointment and frustration sparked by Netanyahu’s surprising and resounding victory in the March 17 ballot you get a critical mass that is generating the daily body blows inflicted by Obama and his spokespeople on Netanyahu and his prospective government.

The Republicans, of course, are feasting on this transcontinental feud, out of love for Netanyahu and loathing for Obama, with the aim of luring away Jewish voters and donors from their traditional Democratic bent. But even on the other side of the fence, in the Democratic Party as well as in many a DC think tank charged with deciphering the administration’s every move – and despite the overall consensus  that Netanyahu is a serial crosser of red lines -  there is growing puzzlement at the rhyme and reason of the president’s ongoing pique. It flies in the face of his image as “no-drama Obama” and of his record as a foreign policy maker of the realist school who usually ignores emotions and urges.

This dissonance has spawned several parallel theories that seek to position the administration’s daily outbursts at Netanyahu as part of an overall strategy aimed at achieving concurrent ends: to warn Netanyahu away, for example, from an overly extremist right wing government, on the one hand, and to push him into a corner in advance of the final showdown, if and when it comes, about a nuclear deal with Iran. The recurring threats of a change in U.S. policy regarding the internationalization of the Palestinian issue is meant to create additional points of give and take pressure on Netanyahu; keeping the conflict with him on the front burner allows the administration to portray his opposition to the Iran deal as part of his personal and political vendetta against the President. In this way, Obama might find it easier to discredit Netanyahu’s arguments and to rally reluctant Democratic lawmakers to his side and away from damaging Congressional bills.

The president, for this part, is portraying the conflict as a clash of policy, not personality, hinging his argument on the one comment made by Netanyahu to the Israeli NRG website on the eve of the elections. So the question is: really? Throughout the long years of their mutual tenure, while Netanyahu was fending off Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve a Palestinian breakthrough and concurrently expanding settlements, Obama thought he and Netanyahu were on the same wavelength? It took one small electioneering gambit, crass as it was, to turn things upside down? Seriously? 

One way or another, don’t put too much stock in the assurances being given by both sides that the tensions are confined to the top while their subordinate echelons maintain business as usual: it doesn’t work that way. Throughout the administration there will be many officials who identify with the White House’s fury at Netanyahu and others who will gauge where the wind is blowing so they can expediently start to follow it. The longer the feud continues, the greater the damage it causes, and the leak to the Wall Street Journal, that can have negative repercussions across all security-conscious agencies dealing with Israel, was just a shot across the bow.

It thus behooves Netanyahu to come up with some dramatic gesture that goes beyond talking nice, in order to break the logjam and change the atmosphere, even if he’s already pressed DELETE on his own unique contribution to creating the mess he and Israel find themselves in.