Netanyahu’s U.S. Visit Marred by Memories of Gaza and Lingering Bad Blood

Israeli PM assumed that the magic of his 'Hamas=ISIS' equation would nullify Gaza resentment, sour relations with Obama and record of ill-timed announcements of building in the territories.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
Netanyahu outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, October 1, 2014.
Netanyahu outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, October 1, 2014.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The Israeli sociologist Edna Lomsky-Feder published a book several years ago on the effects of the Yom Kippur War on lives of the soldiers who fought in it. The book’s main finding was encapsulated in its title: “As If There Was No War.” This headline can be borrowed to describe Israel’s rapid return to normalcy following Operation Protective Edge as well as the underlying theme of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to America: “As if there was no Gaza.”

Netanyahu apparently assumed that the war that President Obama had launched against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria puts Jerusalem back in the same trenches as Washington and erases the criticism, if not rage, that had accumulated in the White House during the Gaza operation in August. As proof of Voltaire’s observation that the human mind has the capacity “to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe,” Netanyahu took for granted that the magical powers of his "Hamas=ISIS" equation could delete memories of the collapse of John Kerry’s peace process, the bitter spat over U.S. recognition of the Palestinian unity government, the unbridled personal attacks on Kerry’s efforts to achieve a cease fire, and, most significantly perhaps, of President Obama’s repeatedly ignored efforts to scaled down the ferocity of Israel’s aerial onslaught on Gaza.

Thus, Netanyahu heaped profuse praise on the morality of the IDF but paid only scant attention to its civilian and financial toll. He ripped into Mahmoud Abbas’ speech, perhaps justifiably, but ignored the Palestinian leader’s constrained and constructive role in the West Bank in the days of Protective Edge. He not only preached in public to Obama and portrayed him as an Iranian patsy, he added insult to injury by hobnobbing with Sheldon Adelson in a Manhattan restaurant, even though he knows, or should have known, that this was a red flag for the White House.

It was against this backdrop that the tenders for 2,610 new apartments in East Jerusalem and the pictures of the settlers entering apartments in Silwan brought a simmering White House to the boiling point that yielded the extraordinarily harsh if not overwrought condemnation that the administration published an hour or two after the end of the Netanyahu-Obama meeting. Resentment of similar incidents in the past – most notably the 1,600 housing units announced during Vice President Biden’s March 2010 visit to Israel – combined with U.S. exasperation during the Gaza campaign, and both were further fueled by the bad blood that always flows between the two leaders. The Americans came to the conclusion that Netanyahu had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, their fury got the best of them and even the electoral consideration of the upcoming Congressional elections failed to stem their fury. Netanyahu’s retort, that the U.S. “should get its facts straight,” poured yet another layer of fat on the fire.

And it’s not that Netanyahu was completely off the mark: the campaign against ISIS has indeed pushed back memories of Gaza and could have prepared the ground for enhanced U.S.-Israeli collaboration. But the effort to leverage the changed circumstances should have been handled with discretion, modesty and from a greater distance, possibly, rather than the clamorous and sometimes cocky campaign that Netanyahu brought with him to America.

On the other hand, one shouldn't exaggerate the portrayal of the damage done: the U.S. media is largely ignoring the new clash between Obama and Netanyahu, as befits old news of the dog bites man variety, as it devotes itself to the immediate threats posed by Islamic State and Ebola virus. So in the end there is reciprocity: Netanyahu speaks to America as there was no war, and America responds as if there was no visit.

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