Obama’s Tortuous Ties With Benjamin Netanyahu, Inside Out

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. March 20, 2013.Credit: AP

Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly the first Israeli prime minister to lecture an American president. Menachem Begin often drove Jimmy Carter crazy with his long-winded speeches on the legacy of the Holocaust and the history of Judea and Samaria. Yitzhak Rabin barely left time for questions after he finished dissecting the Middle East for Bill Clinton; Ehud Barak was no different, possibly even worse, because he spoke five times faster. And before they became the best of friends, Ariel Sharon exasperated Bush Jr. by reading from prepared index cards and hardly letting the U.S. President get a word in edgewise.

Netanyahu’s lectures, nonetheless, seem to aggravate American presidents more. At their first meeting in 1996, Netanyahu admonished Clinton and his aides on their wrongheaded views of Palestinians, after which Clinton famously fumed that the Israeli prime minister doesn’t seem to know “Who’s the fucking superpower here." As Jeffrey Goldberg reveals in his monumental magnum opus on “The Obama Doctrine” Obama felt much the same way, though his reaction was dramatically different. “I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do,” was Obama’s reported retort.

The empirical evidence suggests that at least part of the blame for his listeners’ frustration lies with Netanyahu himself. The Israeli prime minister is enamored with the myth of his own powers of persuasion, perpetuated by sycophants after his numerous speeches in front of Congress or the UN General Assembly, which are always touted as towering oratory even though they never actually change a thing. Netanyahu also suffers from a lack of redeeming features that helped to mitigate reactions to his predecessors’ long winded sermons: He doesn’t have Rabin’s endearing authenticity or Barak’s blinding brilliance or Sharon’s surprising charm or even Begin’s old-world manners and passion for principle, which frustrated Carter immensely but also earned his grudging respect. 

In his decade plus in office, Netanyahu can’t point to a single meaningful relationship with any world leader, and even those who seem promising at the outset inevitably dissolve into disappointment and recriminations, in Israeli politics as well as on the world stage. Inevitably he is viewed not only as condescending, as Goldberg write of Obama’s feelings, but also as disingenuous: Netanyahu’s interlocutors tend to vent their frustration with their own gullibility for believing that Netanyahu genuinely seeks peace with the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, Obama’s extraordinary personal retort to Netanyahu as well as a several other themes of his overall foreign policy doctrine as described by Goldberg provide several illuminating views of the depth and breadth of the multi-faceted clash between the two leaders.  Clinton and others may have been put off by the same kind of arrogance and condescension that Obama felt, but his rage seems fueled by his own unique background as “An African American child of a single mother.” Rather than appreciating the resilience and intelligence needed for someone like him to reach the White House, Obama implies that his background may have led Netanyahu to take him for a fool. For Clinton, Netanyahu’s arrogance may have been the exception but for Obama it could very well have sounded damningly similar to the rule. In Obama’s ears, Netanyahu’s tone probably echoed the kind of barely contained, racially tinged contempt that laces the public statements of many of the Israeli prime minister’s best buddies in the Republican Party and in the conservative media.

I was also struck by Obama’s professed admiration for what he views as Israeli “resilience” in the face of terror, which he seems to contrast with the fear that gripped America in the wake of ISIS attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Israel’s so-called “resilience” is hardly an inborn national trait but a direct consequence of the never-ending violence that plagues Israel, which ultimately numbs even the faintest of hearts. Rightly or wrongly, Israelis view such violence as part of their ongoing fight for survival, rather than a product of crazed Islamic lunatics thousands of miles away. 

And the flip side of the “resilience” that Obama seems to admire is the corrosive effect that terror and violence have had on Israelis’ dedication to democracy, liberal values and human rights.  One can even argue that it is this so-called resilience that has contributed to Netanyahu’s long stay in power and to the fact that Obama has had to deal with him throughout his years in office. 

Obama seems to think that “Manichaeism and eloquently rendered bellicosity” were appropriate in Churchill’s fight against the Nazis, but “rhetoric should be weaponized sparingly, if at all, in today’s more ambiguous and complicated international arena.” Coincidentally or not, this worldview is diametrically opposed to Netanyahu’s, who not only fancies himself a latter day Churchill but sees the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, as an unambiguous black and white fight of good versus evil. The “Churchillian rhetoric” and “Churchillian habits of thought” which Obama believes helped lead his predecessor Bush to the “ruinous war in Iraq” was shared by Netanyahu back then and is his calling card today as well.

Finally, one cannot ignore Obama’s professed admiration for former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, one of the earliest critics of Bush’s folly in Iraq but also a prominent figure in U.S.-Israeli relations since his days with Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House. In the eyes of Netanyahu and many Washington conservatives, Obama’s statement about Scowcroft “I just love the guy” provides prima facie evidence of the President’s miscomprehension of the Middle East if not actual malevolence towards Israel. In conservative, right wing eyes, Scowcroft is damned by his close associations with Kissinger, former Secretary of State James Baker and Carter’s former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, all deemed “hostile” for actively seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Scowcroft played a role in some of the worst clashes between Israel and the United States, including Gerald Ford’s “reassessment” in the mid-1970’s and George Bush’s loan guarantees confrontation in the early 1990’s. 

Scowcroft is considered a red flag for many of the neoconservatives who supported the Iraq War and who are remain staunch supporters of Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing to this very day.  In fact, one of the main arguments put forth by Scowcroft in his 2002 Wall Street Journal article  “Don’t Attack Saddam” was that such an assault would be perceived as pursuing a narrow American interest while the true “obsession of the region is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Given the Israeli perception that the “centrality” of the Palestinian conflict has been thoroughly debunked by the overall meltdown of the Middle East in recent years, one can understand why Obama’s admiration for his fellow foreign policy “realist” might be construed as corroboration of Obama’s hopeless naiveté.

Two weeks after Obama’s historic election in November 2008, Scowcroft and Brzezinski published a joint article in the Washington Post in which they argued that of all the vexing foreign policy problems awaiting the new president, “the Arab-Israeli peace process is one issue that requires priority attention.” By now they seem to have tempered Scowcroft’s previous assertion that the conflict is the Middle East’s obsession, noting that “Not everyone in the Middle East views the Palestinian issue as the greatest regional challenge, but the deep sense of injustice it stimulates is genuine and pervasive.”

Judging by his efforts during his first term in office, Obama certainly seems to have followed Scowcroft and Brzezinski’s general advice. However, he skipped one crucial element: the need for the president to “speak out clearly and forcefully about the fundamental principles of the peace process” and to do so before rather than after he appoints a special emissary to the region or starts to deal with the nuts and bolts of a peace deal. 

Almost three years later, Scowcroft repeated his insistence that Obama must “lay out his view of the parameters of a fair and viable peace agreement”, including 1967 borders with swaps, a solution to the refugee problem, Jerusalem as capital for both nations and demilitarization of a Palestinian State. Perhaps it was Scowcroft’s advice that led Obama to speak a few short weeks later at a State Department ceremony about the 1967 borders and then again at AIPAC, where he tried to quell the storm that he had unleashed. It was that controversy that led to the final, irrevocable rupture between Netanyahu and Obama following the infamous lecture that Netanyahu delivered in May 2011 front of the cameras while at the Oval Office. For the president and his shocked advisers, Netanyahu’s lecture had crossed a red line. It might also have driven the last nail into Obama’s ambitions to achieve peace.

Obama never followed through on Scowcroft’s assertion that a detailed, presidential declaration of the principles of Middle East peace is a prerequisite for any meaningful peace process. According to press reports, Obama is contemplating such a statement now, believing perhaps that late is better than never. The shadow of such a possible declaration may have been one the factors that sabotaged Netanyahu’s scheduled visit to Washington next week and could certainly strain relations between the two leaders even further during the ten months left before Obama leaves office. One way or another, Obama probably won’t escape at least one more condescending and exasperating Netanyahu lecture that will be delivered in the Oval Office, before another joint session of Congress, or in front of a television camera. After the November elections, however, Netanyahu will have to decide whether to deliver a such a final parting shot to Obama or to save his words and start preparing his inevitable introductory lecture to Obama’s successor.

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