Obama and Netanyahu: The final countdown

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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Presidential election campaigns in the US tend to stretch longer than in the past and to consume every ounce of the country’s political energy. Spending this week in New York, really hits home how divided the society here is, ¬¬¬more than I can recall for a very long time. It is especially embodied in the vile and violent presidential campaign run by Donald Trump and his cronies.

At the same time, it is also the final countdown for the eight years of President Obama in the White House, who seems to accomplish in his last year or so in office what he had not achieved in the previous seven years. Surprisingly enough, despite deep divisions in Washington and a Republican controlled Congress, in its dying months the Obama administration accomplished some notable foreign and domestic policy successes.

Reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear program and then passing it in Congress, playing a major part in reaching the Paris climate change agreement and resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades of animosity, are quite a respectful list. However, one of the major failures for the current US president has been his inability to mediate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, despite setting it as a major priority from the very early days of his presidency.

The dent of not advancing a peace in the Middle East cannot be separated from the problematic and gradual deterioration of relations between President Obama and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week Netanyahu,for instance, cancelled a visit to the US where he had been scheduled to attend the conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. Apparently, the cancellation of the visit was to avoid a meeting the American president.

Already in his first year in the White House, in a visit to Cairo, Obama expressed the supreme importance he attached to bringing about an end to the decades long Israeli – Palestinian conflict. He even became the first person to receive the Noble Peace Prize, the same year, for intentions to bring peace rather than actually reaching a successful peace agreement. His inexperience, even naivety, to be fair, were initially a major obstacle in his peace efforts. Later, and for the rest of his time in office, this inexperience was conflated with the gravest turmoil in the region, which made his efforts at peace increasingly more complex.

Nevertheless, much of the inability to overcome the fundamental causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted inside Israel and Palestine and the way it is played into US domestic politics. With the exception of short two months, President Obama has dealt with one Israeli prime minister only, Netanyahu, and this has been a steep and painful learning curve.

Beyond becoming a national embarrassment for Israel, Netanyahu’s approach is harming Israel’s national interests and worse prolonging a conflict, which unnecessarily inflicts misery on so many Palestinians and to a lesser extent Israelis.

Yossi Mekelberg

In a recent and wide-ranging series of interviews with American commentator Jeffery Goldberg for the Atlantic, Obama took off the gloves in portraying the way he sees Netanyahu’s leadership. As a matter of fact Obama expressed his general disappointment and disillusionment with leadership in the Middle East, but asserts that Netanyahu in this sense “…is in his own category.” Now that Obama is free of any elections, he articulates, one might argue vents, both personal distaste for the arrogance and condescending nature of the Israeli leader’s manner, as much as for his policies and lack of leadership.

Netanyahu has long made an utter nuisance of himself in lecturing consecutive US presidents on the complexity and pitfalls of the region, as if they were first year students in Middle East politics. This according to Goldberg, did not fail to irritate Obama to the point of clarifying to Netanyahu that reaching the highest office in the United States, especially with his background, should indicate that he was smart enough to understand the multilayered challenges of the Middle East. They do not see eye to eye on politics inthe region or even what is good for the Jewish state’slong-term survival.

It reminded of a story told to me some time ago by a former senior aide to President Reagan. He had met with Netanyahu in the early 1980s, when Netanyahu was a mid-rank appointee diplomat in the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC. Over lunch the young Israeli diplomat preached to this senior American official about the approach the US administration should follow in its foreign policy. Netanyahu sometimes sees this blunt approach as good old-fashioned Israeli ‘chtutzpah’, even charm, which helps him to get his way. This senior advisor, however, failed to see any charm in Netanyahu’s attitude and refused to see this budding politician ever again.

Beyond becoming a national embarrassment for Israel, Netanyahu’s approach is harming Israel’s national interests and worse prolonging a conflict, which unnecessarily inflicts misery on so many Palestinians and to a lesser extent Israelis. His approach toward negotiation with Iran failed colossally, and in his irresponsible efforts to undermine a US president on his domestic turf created an irreparable rift, at least until there is a new president. This compounded with intransigence on expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and imposing a blockade on Gaza, rendered the chance of any successful peace negotiations impossible.

As much as one feels much sympathy for Obama’s frustration with the Israeli government, led by Netanyahu, one also cannot ignore Obama’s own responsibility for not showing firmer leadership and confronting Israel about the Palestinian issue the same way he did with the Iranian one. It is never easy for an American president to challenge Israel, considering the US domestic political configuration and the deep-rooted strategic and historical ties between the two countries. Unfortunately in failing to do so, he compromised the chances of achievingan historic peace in the Middle East to the detriment of Israeli-Palestinian and also his own country’s interests.
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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