After his famous or infamous, if you prefer speech in Cairo in June 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama went on a sightseeing tour of the Pyramids and the Sphinx. In an interview published this week in Vanity Fair, Obama told Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author on Abe Lincoln’s Team of Rivals, that the sites inspired him to think of people who lived in that period who thought they were very important, as they were depicted in the hieroglyphics, the Twitter of the time. “And now it’s all covered in dust and sand”, Obama says, “and all that people know today are the pyramids.”
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What the polls say about him on any given day isn’t important, Obama adds. “What’s relevant is what am I building that lasts.” Soon after being elected president, Obama recounts, he reached “a point where the vanity burns away and you’ve had your fill of your name in the papers, or big adoring crowds, or the exercise of power. And you ask yourself what am I going to do with this strange privilege that’s been granted to me?” But if you don’t go through that process, Obama cautions, “then you start getting into trouble, because then you’re just” and here Obama gestures as if climbing a ladder “clinging to prerogatives and the power and the attention.”
His daughters describe the phenomenon as “You get thirsty,” Obama says, to which Goodwin adds “And the thirst is unquenchable.”
Here is another window to the perennially strained and repeatedly explained relations between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama thinks of the future, Netanyahu is focused on the present and the past. Obama is an optimist by nature; Netanyahu is a pessimist through and through. Obama wanted to forge a new reality between Israel and the Palestinians; Netanyahu did his best to keep things exactly as they are. For Obama, change is an aspiration, for Netanyahu it’s a dirty word.
Obama is a risk-taker, Netanyahu is risk averse. Obama is revolutionary, Netanyahu a status-quo fanatic. Obama rammed through the Affordable Care Act even though it crippled and poisoned his first term just as he bulldozed the nuclear deal with Iran, which largely consumed his second. Obama would have gotten along famously with Shimon Peres, who would have outdone him in the vision thing, or with Ehud Barak, who could have shown him a thing or two about taking risks. Of course, what might seem like an American-Israeli dream team for American liberals and Israeli leftists is a nightmare scenario for their right-wing rivals. The combination of Obama and someone like Peres or Barak would be a hazardous and potentially deadly mix for both Israel and the U.S., they would maintain.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, calculates twenty miles ahead in order to take even one, small and hesitant step towards change. Obama may have weaned himself off polls and headlines, but it’s fair to remember that, unlike Netanyahu, he didn’t have to cater to a surly, high-maintenance coalition or to worry about being deposed mid-term, especially after winning elections for a second time. Netanyahu, however, has now gone to the other extreme, where he finds himself enslaved by polls, infuriated by negative headlines, and seemingly turning his political survival into the end all and be all of being in power in the first place. Despite his long years at the helm, Netanyahu is, by Sasha and Malia’s definition, eternally thirsty and never quenched.
Obama learned the hard way that Netanyahu is no partner for trailblazing breakthroughs but is a world class expert at laying down mines and setting up obstacles to block the President’s plans, with the help of his GOP allies and the pro-Israel lobby. Obama found out he can’t convince Netanyahu to embrace his vision but he can’t force it down his throat either. He backed away from confrontation and preferred to look the other way, much to Netanyahu’s relief and to the anguish of his critics.
Netanyahu laments the fact that Obama spent so much energy chasing pie in the sky solutions while Obama believes that Netanyahu’s intractability is running Israel into the ground. Both leaders are well aware of the intelligence, knowledge and oratorical skill of the other but both believe they are being pitifully wasted. It wasn’t anger that defined Obama’s attitude towards Netanyahu so much as disappointment that gradually descended to disgust.
The news reports of what was touted as their farewell meeting in New York on Wednesday described a joint effort to make nice and leave with a smile. From afar, at least, it seemed as if Netanyahu was the only one exerting himself while Obama looks withdrawn, tense, and yearning for the event to be over asap. In this regard, the comparison made by a senior official between the two leaders and the grumpy duo of Statler and Waldorf of the Muppets Show, widely reported in the Israeli press on Thursday, was completely off the wall. First, because the two old men are kibitzers and not the main actors on the stage, like Obama and Netanyahu. Second, because they always complain about what everyone else is doing and not, like Netanyahu and Obama, about each other. And finally, because Statler and Waldorf are not only fond of each other they also like to spend time with each other. Obama and Netanyahu, as everyone could plainly see, never have and, apparently, never will.