Obama and Netanyahu, From Gaza to Iraq: Closer Than Ever but Miles Apart

Netanyahu ejected the U.S. from peace talks and cease-fire efforts; the results can be seen in the bombs on Gaza and the missiles over Tel Aviv

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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An archive photo from March 20, 2013 showing U.S. President Barack Obama talking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a press conference in Jerusalem.
An archive photo from March 20, 2013 showing U.S. President Barack Obama talking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a press conference in Jerusalem.Credit: Pete Souza, White House
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There was something both ironic and bittersweet in Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conferences on Wednesday: the two leaders were closer than ever but still many miles apart. Both are managing military campaigns against extremist Islamic groups that can be described as fateful for the region and crucial for their own futures as well. Were it not for the gulf of suspicion and resentment that separates them, Obama and Netanyahu might now be collaborating on a wide front that could benefit them both.

After all, Obama's extraordinarily harsh reaction to the beheading of American journalist James Foley by Islamic State militants sounded at times as if it was taken directly from Netanyahu’s lexicon of evil terror groups. Obama described the Islamic State as enemies of God and civilization, a "cancer" that needs to be extracted so it does not spread. Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t far behind, pledging to confront the Islamic State "wherever it tries to spread its despicable hatred.”

The escalation in the presidential rhetoric probably reflects Obama’s own sense of revulsion at the pictures of Foley’s execution, but is also a necessary political reaction to the waves of fury that have swept the United States. American public opinion has no wish to become embroiled again in Iraq, would probably make do with symbolic military moves to save the Yazidis and is in any case preoccupied with scratching its own open wounds of black-white relations in Ferguson, Missouri. But the bestial and barbaric execution of an American citizen has elicited a sense of national humiliation along with a push for violent revenge that Obama needs to address. The battle cry "Annihilate the Islamic State" spread through social and mainstream media on Wednesday, as if we were hearing from some foulmouthed member of Knesset or a wild commenter on one of Israel’s unruly websites.

Like Netanyahu in Gaza, Obama has been dragged into combat in northwest Iraq against his better judgment, and like Netanyahu, the president’s political fortunes are now dependent, among other things, on the behavior of his worst enemies: significant victories by the Islamic State in the next few weeks could crash Obama's already nose-diving numbers in the polls. Netanyahu’s higher approval ratings will suffer a similar fate if he doesn’t subdue Hamas very soon.

And while Obama is a much more reluctant warrior than the already careful Netanyahu, both are deterred by the kind of massive and risky military commitment that may be needed in order to decide the battle. Both are therefore exposed to the danger of a war of attrition that will deplete their political reserves as well.

"Hamas is Islamic State and Islamic State is Hamas" Netanyahu said in Tel Aviv, in an effort to fuse the two groups in the public mind, an exercise that may be intellectually challenged but could nonetheless prove to be a PR gold mine, especially in America. If Obama had a bit more George Bush in him and/or if Netanyahu was more Ehud Barack or Shimon Peres, the Hamas=Islamic State equation could have been easily complemented with a reciprocal Israel=America equation, but they’re not. The two leaders might have been expected to stand more or less shoulder to shoulder against the outside world in the past few months, but they couldn’t stop sniping at each other nonetheless.

Netanyahu ejected Secretary of State John Kerry from the talks over a cease-fire and the results were apparent on Wednesday in the bombing raids on Gaza and the rockets that flew over Tel Aviv. Netanyahu played a major role in the failure of Kerry’s peace efforts with Abbas as well, and got the unity government with Hamas instead. His efforts to undermine that construct are what brought Israel to where it is now.

But without America – even a weakened America headed by a reluctant president – there can be no long-lasting arrangement in Gaza: only America can guarantee Israel's commitments, only America can give proper backing to the Palestinian Authority and only America can lead the kind of international effort that is needed in order to rebuild Gaza and hopefully bring about its disarmament as well. And with all due respect to the regional changes that Netanyahu mentioned in his press conference, only America is capable of facilitating the kind of diplomatic process that would lead to the "new political horizon" that Netanyahu alluded to on Wednesday, in a transparent effort to woo coalition partners on his left as well as Israel's more centrist-minded public.

Netanyahu tried to make nice, to mend fences and to pretend that everything was hunky dory between Jerusalem and Washington, praising the Obama administration for its support during Operation Protective Edge. Given the fact that Israel and America seem to have common enemies now, broadly defined, and if we assume that Netanyahu will tell the Americans that he wants to march with them towards his “new horizon” perhaps the administration might be persuaded, once again, to wipe the slate clean and start afresh.

But keep in mind that there are Obama supporters in Washington who are convinced that when it comes to his relations with the U.S. President, Netanyahu is like the scorpion in the famous fable who pledges not to sting if the frog takes him across the river on his back. He doesn’t keep his promise, of course, but just before the two of them drown the scorpion provides an explanation: “Nothing I could do. It’s in my nature."

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