Mutual Mistrust Makes Obama-Netanyahu Clash on Iran Even Riskier

Any nuclear deal would have created friction, but with duos such as Sharon/Bush or Rabin/Clinton at the helm, the fallout could be contained.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington October 1, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington October 1, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

From an Israeli point of view, a nuclear agreement between the United States and Iran was going to be a hard sell in any case. Even if such lovebirds as George Bush and Ariel Sharon or bosom buddies like Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin were leading America and Israel right now, a nuclear accord with Tehran would have tested the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship.” Iran is too fanatic and formidable and Israel is too experienced and apprehensive for it to be otherwise.

But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama going head to head, the danger is that the special ties between the two countries will suffer extensive damage as well. Their mutual lack of trust and their sincere belief in each other’s bad intentions can only inflame an already volatile bilateral confrontation.

Of course, it can be argued that any agreement negotiated while the Bush/Sharon or Clinton/Rabin duos were in power - as well as Clinton/Barak or Bush/Ehud Olmert - would have looked completely different at this stage anyway. Sharon and Rabin would have used their personal sway in the White House in order to have a say in the contents of any agreement, and Bush or Clinton would have heard them out and taken their suggestions into consideration, at the very least. Their basic trust in each other’s personal sincerity and commitment to bilateral ties would have safeguarded the overall relationship from any general harm.

But with the dialogue of the deaf that goes on between Netanyahu and Obama, with their increasingly shrill public discourse and with their mutual suspicions disabling their ability to lend an attentive ear, Israel has been effectively shut out of influence in the place where it matters most, the White House. Rather than devoting their energies to a constructive give and take over the past months, both leaders have been sniping at each other while amassing reservoirs of pent up anger and frustrations that will be unleashed in one dangerous burst, if and when an Iran agreement is signed. And while both men obviously share a rational appreciation of the ties that bind their countries, the past six years have shown that it is their mutual and arguably irrational mistrust that often determines their behavior.

Netanyahu subscribes to the Michael Oren view of Obama that sees the U.S. president as inherently hostile to Israel in general and to Netanyahu in particular. Whether it is Obama’s Muslim background, his Third World identity, his liberal upbringing, his Jewish-leftist indoctrination or any combination thereof, Netanyahu does not believe that the President has Israel’s best interests at heart. Famously asked by CNN’s Jim Costa a few months ago whether he trusts Obama, Netanyahu pointedly replied: "I trust that the president is doing what he thinks is good for the United States."

Obama’s view of Netanyahu isn’t any better. In his eyes, the Israeli prime minister policies endanger Israel’s Jewish identity and international standing and often force the U.S. into unsplendid isolation at world forums. Whether it’s his Likud upbringing, his conservative worldview or the cumulative effect of Sheldon Adelson’s influence and largesse, Netanyahu has repeatedly and openly sided with Obama’s political enemies and has often seemed to be gunning for Obama because of who and what he is, rather than the specific policies that he pursues.

The animosity and mistrust between the two has led to what some international relations experts describe, in a slightly different context, as a “spiral model” of deteriorating ties: Steps taken by otherwise trustworthy countries are misinterpreted as manifesting hostility, leading to countermeasures that produce similar reactions on the other side. In his book “Trust and Mistrust in International Relations”, University of Wisconsin Andrew Kydd highlights a factor of spiral models that seems particularly pertinent where Netanyahu and Obama are concerned: “The tendency of actors with benign self-images to believe, without justification, that others share this benign image, so that if others engage in hostile behavior it must be a result of malevolence on their part.”

Thus, Netanyahu’s virulent opposition to the Iran deal and his willingness to delve in internal U.S. politics to block it are interpreted in the White House as manifestations of the Israeli prime minister’s personal animus and not of his conviction that the deal poses a truly existential danger. Similarly, Obama’s very willingness to engage with Iran as well as his support for Palestinian statehood aren’t simply an expression of American interests, as he sees them, but concrete proof of sinister intent.

Of course, foreign policy realists will pooh-pooh the theoretical influence of personal frictions between leaders. It’s all self-interest of powers that are constantly engaged in strengthening themselves, as the father of “offensive realism,” John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, wrote: “There is little room for trust between states.” Discarding the concept of “shared values” and sentimental poppycock, Mearsheimer and his realist Harvard partner Stephen Walt were almost compelled to provide the ominous influence of the Israel Lobby as an alternative explanation for the exceptionally close ties between America and Israel that often seem to run against Washington’s self-interest.

Nonetheless, most historians will agree that personal relations between leaders are a critical building block in relations, especially between countries whose ties are deemed “special.” Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s complex but nonetheless intimate friendship was a central element in buttressing the World War II alliance between Britain and the United States. The mutual appreciation society of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher reinvigorated U.S.-U.K. relations after an extended cooling off period, and were the bedrock of another relationship in which trust played a critical historical role: that between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, without which, some historians believe, the Cold War would not have ended as peacefully as it did.

In a May, 2015 article in Foreign Policy, editor David Rothkopf wrote, however, that both sets of special relationships are now receding not because relations at the top are souring but because America’s global interests are changing. “Whereas a generation ago Israel was seen as central to U.S. Mideast policy, today, while it is still America’s most important and best-supported ally in the region, events have undercut its importance in practical terms.” Among these events, Rothkopf cites the end of the Cold War, America’s newfound energy independence, the diminishing centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the “fading” importance of the special ties in the eyes of younger Americans.

And while Rothkopf does not deny the contribution of the frosty relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama to the cooling of ties “the historical factors and current geopolitical trends cited above will make it very hard for anyone to restore these relationships to the special place they occupied in the past.”

But even if one accepts such an analysis, in the shifting sands of the Middle East, circumstances can reverse themselves virtually overnight. Allies, such as Turkey, can turn into adversaries; islands of stability, such as Syria, can become cauldrons of chaos; new and horrific forces of destruction, such as Islamic State, can rise without any prior warning while once hated enemies, such as Iran, can be instrumental allies in one country, Iraq, tactical adversaries in another, Yemen, and overall, terror-supporting strategic rivals in the entire Middle East.

A nuclear deal with Iran, if signed, would be an earth-shattering addition to this already quaking Middle East landscape. The fight for its approval in Congress, intertwined as it has become with election year politics, will be nothing short of furious. Nonetheless, under other circumstances, and with other leaders, there would be little doubt that the bedrock of U.S.-Israeli ties is strong enough to sustain it. With Netanyahu and Obama at the helm, there is a far greater danger of sustaining lasting damage.

And even if one ascribes equal blame to both leaders for the state of their union, in the end, only one of them is a superpower, and the other a strong but nonetheless utterly dependent ally. As Clinton once said, Netanyahu often seems to forget which is which.

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