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When Obama met Netanyahu: No lunch, no love lost

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Since his election to office nearly six years ago, the presidency of Barack Obama has coincided with the Premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. It might well be the case by the time Obama completes eight years in the White House, he will have dealt with the same Israeli prime minister for his entire presidency—and most probably one he would have never wished to work with. Every autumn Netanyahu makes his way to the United States to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York. During his visit he also meets with the American president for discussions to discuss various issues of interest for the two countries. Alas, the friendship between the two countries is not mirrored in the personal relations between their two leaders. In recent years not only were political analysts invited to explain the roots of their disagreements, but also body language experts, who could only describe the way that they relate to each other as utter dislike and distrust.

There is a growing danger that the strained relationship between the two leaders might play a defining role both in their leadership and their political legacy. President Obama may complete eight years in the White House without managing to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a target he set to himself early in his first term. Along the years he showed downright weakness in influencing Israeli policies led by Netanyahu. It reflects badly on Obama’s entire presidency and U.S. foreign policy.

President Obama is evidently tired and irritated by Netanyahu’s constant lectures to him about what course of action the U.S. should take in the Middle East.

Yossi Mekelberg

In the days leading up to the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu last Wednesday, most of the headlines concentrated on the fact that the two leaders were scheduled for a short meeting only. They emphasized the fact that the Israeli prime minister was not invited to lunch with the American president. In the end the discussions lasted two hours, and Obama had a lunch with vice president Biden without the Israeli prime minister. Symbolism and diplomatic gestures aside, the rift between the two leaders runs much deeper. There are increasing signs that Netanyahu, as reflected both in his address in the U.N. and in the joint press conference with the president, shows detachment from the mood of the international community. Some even suggest that he shows complete disregard for U.S. policy priorities in the Middle East. Considering that the US is Israel’s main political, military and economic ally, Netanyahu is risking Israeli interests by opening such a rift with the U.S..

In their discussions last week, three main topics topped the agenda: containing the Iranian nuclear program, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and the war against militant Islam, especially ISIS. While both countries are in complete agreement as to the urgent need to defeat ISIS, the United States sees Israel’s stance on the two other issues as incompatible to U.S. interests in the region.

Peace talks

Years of efforts to broker peace left Obama disillusioned regarding Netanyahu’s true intentions. Nothing irks the American administration more than the constant Israeli announcements of the expansion of settlements, including the ones in East Jerusalem. Obama cannot allow himself to go as far as saying what former president Bill Clinton said few weeks ago. Clinton stated that Netanyahu was ‘not the guy to strike a peace deal’ with the Palestinians. Unlike Clinton, Obama is still constrained by his position and the fast approaching mid-term elections. Yet, very few will doubt that he shares Clinton’s sentiment in its entirety. It is very unusual for an American administration to condemn the act of a government while its leader is visiting and meeting with the president, especially where a very close ally is concerned. This protocol was abandoned this week when both the White House and the State Department, on the very same day of the meeting between the American and Israeli leaders, condemned Israeli approval of another new neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem. Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for the Department of State, described the announcement of building 2,610 new housing units in Givat Hamatos, as one that “… will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians, but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations." If this was not a strong enough condemnation, she added that this act calls to question Israeli commitment to a “peaceful negotiated settlement.” This reflects a complete loss of faith in the sincerity of the current Israeli government in its peace negotiations. Israel’s construction of settlements is seen as a deliberate act to sabotage the two state solution.

The Obama administration stopped taking Netanyahu’s explanations for the expansion of settlements seriously a long time ago. His explanations ranged from suggesting that expansions were based on technical approval of older decisions, to the right of Jews to live everywhere in the country. The technicality argument makes him appear an incompetent leader controlled by his own bureaucracy, or just disingenuous. The argument of the right of Jews to live in the West Bank is sheer demagogue, as it is an occupied territory. The opposition to the building of Jewish settlements is due to the fact it deprives Palestinians from ever exercising self-determination. It is part of an oppressive occupation which contravenes international law. Netanyahu instead of trying to heal the rift with the U.S., has exacerbated it upon his return to Israel by describing U.S. objection to expanding the settlements as going against American values. He further aggravates relations with the US by proclaiming that this American stance diminishes prospects for peace.

Iran’s nuclear program is currently another major source of controversy between the United States and Israel. Israel would like Iran to be top of Washington’s agenda, bundled together with the threat of militant Islam. To Netanyahu’s disappointment, Obama preferred to concentrate on Israeli commitment to the peace process. As a consequence of the mismatch of personalities and fundamental discrepancy in approaching international relations between the two, a rift between Israel and the United States is becoming increasingly evident. Negotiations with Iran are still in a very delicate stage and more than anything else require a nuanced approach and painstaking negotiations. There is no guarantee that negotiations will succeed, but they are not helped by mutually belligerent statements from either Tehran or Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s insistence on his visit to the U.S. that the outcome of negotiations be the complete dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program, is seen as undermining the negotiations at a crucial moment. Netanyahu’s assertion that regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, Israel will leave all options open to address Iranian nuclear program, also implying a military operation, is a source of grave concern in Washington.

President Obama is evidently tired and irritated by Netanyahu’s constant lectures to him about what course of action the U.S. should take in the Middle East. They are usually delivered in a very preachy tone and oversimplify very complex issues. Moreover, there is a consensus in Washington that Israel’s inflexibility in dealing with Palestinians also impairs other U.S. interests in the region, including dealing effectively with Iranian nuclear ambitions and containing radicalism in the region. Israel is a stable and powerful ally when it works in tandem with policy makers in Washington. Netanyahu’s politics increasingly become a liability, which may lead American strategists to rethink the long term value of this partnership.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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