When President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met this week in Washington, the main issue on their agenda was the Iranian nuclear threat. But the subtext of the debate over whether the United States will step up its own threats to use force to ensure that Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions or will stand in the way of an Israeli attack is the tense personal relationship between the two men.
The fact that Obama has little use for Netanyahu is not exactly a state secret. Though the president has boasted of his close personal relationships with other foreign leaders such as the Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Obama has complained publicly about his distaste for dealing with Netanyahu and engaged in annual fights with the Israeli over policy questions such as Jerusalem and subjected the Israeli to public dressing downs.
Indeed, Obama seemed to think at one point that he might bring down Netanyahu’s government but rather than sink him, these attacks merely strengthened the prime minister at home because Israelis regard Obama with great suspicion. These feelings are obviously reciprocated, as was proven when Netanyahu lost his patience in 2011 after being ambushed by Obama on the 1967 borders and publicly lectured the president about Israel’s security needs.
All this has rightly led to concerns among American supporters of Israel about Obama’s friendship for the Jewish state, something that could have a serious impact on the president’s chances for re-election. To this Obama and the Democrats have replied that this is all a misunderstanding. To the extent that they will admit that there is any division between the two nations, Democrats argue that it is merely a function of a personal spat between the two men.
However, attempts to rationalize this problem as the inevitable fallout from a personal spat are wrongheaded. Though a personal connection between the president and the prime minister might go a long toward smoothing over the problem, the difficulty goes a lot deeper.
Israel’s problem with the White House is not so much the fact that its current occupant doesn’t like Netanyahu as his lack of a strong affinity for the country itself. Obama’s instincts since his first day of office have led him to seek to create more distance between the U.S. and Israel and to instead conduct a failed effort toward outreach and engagement to the Muslim and Arab world. Obama pays lip service to Israel’s security needs and has denounced Iran’s nuclear ambitions loudly and often. But his reflexive backing for anti-Israel institutions such as UNESCO and open reluctance to enforce existing sanctions against Tehran or to declare “red lines” that if crossed would subject the Islamist regime to American retaliation gives the lie to the notion that he can be relied upon to back up those words with action.
Obama has rightly said that an Iranian nuclear weapon is just as much America’s problem as it Israel’s. Yet his desire to postpone any showdown on the issue while waiting for sanctions that he knows have little or no chance to succeed to resolve the impasse demonstrates that he regards the issue as more of a hindrance to his re-election campaign than a genuine threat that must be dealt with before the Iranians have gone too far to be stopped. The fact that his administration seems more worried about stopping Israel from acting in its own interests than in tangible measures that would ensure the collapse of the Iranian threat speak louder than his protestations of affection for Israel.
Though it makes for good copy, the focus on the Obama-Netanyahu relationship obscures the basic policy differences that have arisen between Israel and the United States during the past three years. Israel’s difficulty in trusting the administration to do the right thing on Iran stems from Obama’s stands on the issues not a lack of personal chemistry on the part of the president and the prime minister.
JNS columnist Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMETARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter here.