Obama and Netanyahu: The soap opera continues

The Obama-Netanyahu soap opera has entered its fifth season

Joyce Karam

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The Obama-Netanyahu soap opera has entered its fifth season and the first episode this week was nothing short of electrifying. With an unnamed Washington official calling the Israeli prime minister “chicken****” as tension flurries over Iran, Gaza, U.S. Congressional elections, settlement expansion and the disappearance of a major character: the peace process.

Jeffrey Goldberg struck again in the Atlantic, offering a melodramatic insight to what has become a very toxic relationship between Obama and Israel’s feisty prime minister. There were many “things” that U.S. officials had to say anonymously about Netanyahu and none them is flattering. Bibi is described as a "chicken****,” a “coward” and someone who is “scared to launch wars.” This makes an interesting selection of words two months after the 50-day-war in Gaza which left more than 2200 dead.

Mask is off

The horrors of Gaza notwithstanding, Goldberg’s piece officially drops the niceties mask between Obama and Bibi. Truth is, these two leaders never liked each other, but they tried to contain their disdain publicly for political and strategic reasons. The recent escalation in rhetoric ushers a new phase where there will be much less holding back from the U.S. on Netanyahu in the two remaining years for Obama in office, mainly because there is much less to lose for both of them. No political realist at this stage can expect a breakthrough in the peace process and the recent saga is an acknowledgement of its collapse by both Washington and Tel Aviv. On Iran, while the U.S. takes Israel’s security concerns into high consideration, it won’t sacrifice the opportunity for an internationally accepted deal even if Netanyahu opposes it.

The war of words unleashed between Obama and Netanyahu is unlikely to have major strategic implications

Joyce Karam

The feeling of antipathy between Obama and Netanyahu has been there from day one. Obama snubbed Israel on his first Middle East trip in 2009 and Netanyahu lectured the 44th president in the oval office in 2011. In another controversial moment in 2011, Obama was caught on open microphone with the French President Nicolas Sarkozy when Sarko called Bibi a “liar” and the U.S. president complained about having to “deal with him every day.”

The chemistry between Bibi and Obama was never there, but neither was the politics. Obama’s strategy for settlement freeze in the first term was completely dismantled by Netanyahu, and the mere prospect of direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis today is no longer an option.

While a big part of the blame for the collapse of negotiations is rightly shouldered by Netanyahu, who chose time and again not to compromise on final status issues, the Obama administration should not be exempt from this failure as well. A close reading of the events, show that Obama did not push wholeheartedly for his strategy and when Netanyahu fought back and out maneuvered the administration in Congress, the White House stood down. This was evident in the spat over the Settlement freeze in the first term, and the bickering over possible release of former U.S. agent who spied for Israel, Jonathan Pollard.

Later during the Gaza war, Kerry was humiliated by the Israeli government which reportedly tapped his mobile phone and voted down his first ceasefire proposal.

For the White House, the anti-Netanyahu sentiment seems more directed at the Israeli prime minister’s persona rather than being a statement of policy. It is Netanyahu’s jabs at Obama, going to Congress behind his back, and hosting his opponent Mitt Romney during the last presidential campaign that feeds the bad blood between the two leaders.

No strategic implications

The war of words unleashed between Obama and Netanyahu is unlikely to have major strategic implications. The contained reaction from the Israeli government suggests that there was no surprise and the overarching framework of the “special relationship” and increased security aid is unlikely to change.

With all polls indicating that the Republican Party is on the verge of making big gains in both the House and the Senate in next week’s midterm elections, Netanyahu is poised to grab extra leverage in Washington. The presidential campaign for 2016 will also launch next summer, likely muting criticism against Israel and further tying Obama’s hands as not to hurt potential candidates of his own party. As far as the peace process is concerned, the Gaza war was the last nail in the negotiations’ coffin, shifting the ground towards security priorities for Israel while weakening the hand of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Regionally, the Middle East is consumed with more urgent priorities in dealing with the rise of ISIS and two wars in Iraq and Syria, the increasing threat of terrorism in Egypt and potential fragmentation of Libya, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue. This landscape has come at the expense of Palestinian statehood, and has left settlement expansion go unchecked in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The public rant involving “chicken****” and talk of cowardliness is more of a tactic and less of a strategy. It signifies a change in tone without loosening any of the constraints on the policy. On the one hand, Netanyahu has “written off” the Obama administration and will dodge the White House by going through a friendlier Congress, while the farthest extent to which administration can go would be at the United Nations in setting U.N. endorsed parameters for a final solution without that affecting the $3 billion annually in military aid or settlement expansion.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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