Rivlin-Obama Meeting: The Strange Sensation of Diplomatic Normality

With no tension in the air, no edginess before the cameras, presidents' meeting highlights what has been absent from Israeli-American relations during past seven years.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during a bilateral meeting at the white House in Washington, DC, December 9, 2015.
AFP

President Reuven Rivlin’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday felt oddly strange. There was no tension in the air, no edginess before the cameras. Compliments and pleasantries flowed easily, the body language of the leaders conveyed warmth and closeness.

This, of course, is what diplomatic normality looks like. But normality has been very much absent from Israeli-American relations during the past seven years.

Both Obama and Rivlin made every effort to demonstrate cordiality. Obama said he was glad to be able to host Rivlin and first lady Nehama Rivlin at a Hanukkah party and praised Rivlin’s activity for Israel’s Arab citizens.

Rivlin compared Obama to the shamash (auxiliary candle) in the candelabra, in whose light the entire world marches. It is doubtful whether the American president has received such a compliment recently from any foreign leader.

Obama and Netanyahu during their meeting at the White House, September 30, 2013.
Bloomberg

One of the differences between the last meeting between Obama and Netanyahu and Wednesday's meeting with Rivlin was the way it was described by the Americans. After meeting with Obama last month, Netanyahu had told the press that his meeting was "the best ever," a White House spokesman cooled down the enthusiasm and said that he might not have defined it as such. However, after meeting Rivlin it was Obama himself who proclaimed the meeting a success. 

"Was this meeting better or worse than other meetings? You are bigger experts [than me]," Rivlim said, as if he was hiding a smile, during a brief press conference at the White House after the meeting. "You were here for all the meetings, and was only in this one, so I can't tell."

Rivlin often says Israel’s foreign policy is based on three principles – its relations with the United States, its relations with the United States and its relations with the United States. In recent years, as Knesset speaker, MK and president, he saw the crisis in relations with the United States getting deeper until it almost reached an irrevocable rupture.

When Rivlin said the United States was Israel’s greatest friend, he was stating the obvious. But in in the last seven years it has been said too little, too late and in a way that appeared to be mere lip service. In too many meetings between Obama and Netanyahu, it has seemed as if the Israeli prime minister had come to fight with the leader of a hostile state, rather than with the leader of the world’s strongest power and the reason Israel can defend itself and receive diplomatic support.

During the meeting with Rivlin, Obama did not hide the deep frustration he is feels with regard to Israel in the last seven years. It has genuinely hurt him. He can't understand how, despite all the political and military aid he has given to Israel, he is still seen by great part of the Israeli government as a hostile president.

Obama and Rivlin were expected to share their impressions and opinions about Netanyahu in the tete-a-tete part of the meeting. They see eye-to-eye on Netanyahu’s weaknesses and strengths and both have had quite a few political battles with him, some of which they lost and some they won.

Obama and Rivlin share values. Though they disagree on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their views on democracy, human rights and other liberal principles are very similar. In his regard for Israeli Arabs, Rivlin is perhaps the Israeli politician who most resembles Obama. Together, they could advance issues like fighting racism and increasing tolerance.

One of the issues Rivlin has dealt with since taking office is mending the rifts among the various communities in Israel. It is yet to be seen whether he and Obaman can develop a relationship that would help mend the rift between Israel and the United States.