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February 29, 2012 10:08 am

Obama and Netanyahu: The Summit of Discontent

avatar by Arik Elman

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Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with President Barack Obama (right) in the Oval Office. Photo: wiki commons.

When next Monday the American President sits down with the Israeli Prime Minister in the White House, this will be a historic meeting. Not because it will define the future of the Middle East or open new opportunities for peace or signal the beginning of the decisive confrontation with Iran – nothing of the kind is expected or even possible. No; what will be historic is the level of mutual resentment, suspicion and mistrust between the leaders of two nations in a “special relationship”. While the Israeli and American peoples are as close as ever before, their highest elected officials are just a step away from the cold war that raged between Washington and Jerusalem two years ago.

When Barack Obama looks at Netanyahu, he sees a dangerous nuisance. To Obama, the current Israeli government has become an international embodiment of the outdated worldview he finds so exasperating at home. Israel under Netanyahu is a country that “clings to its guns and religion”, not realizing that it has ended up on the wrong side of history. Having no passion – or patience – for the Jewish national narrative, Obama interprets Netanyahu’s unwillingness to accommodate the Palestinian demands as evidence of either duplicitous intent to grab as much Arab land as possible, or worse – of a cowardly preference for political survival. Since for Obama and those who help him handle the Israeli file, the solution for the conflict between Arabs and Jews looks so clear and simple, they can’t bring themselves to respect the Prime Minister who refuses to see the light or knows what is right and prefers to dwell in darkness with his extremist coalition partners.

To that, one must add the race factor. In her book “No Higher Honor” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice time and again recalls how she’d addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the completely irrelevant prism of Black history in America. When a woman of such intelligence and experience looks at the wall the Jews built to shield themselves from Arab murderers and recalls how as a child she couldn’t go “places just because the color of my skin”, it’s not an exaggeration to suppose that for Obama, those false comparisons hold as well. While to confess such sentiments would be political suicide, it’s hard not to suspect that the leftist accusations of racism and apartheid against the Jewish state, so ubiquitous at the blogs affiliated with the Obama “base”, indeed touch a nerve in the Oval Office.

Were it not for the internal political calculation, Obama would still be treating Netanyahu with the same open contempt he displayed until the midterm elections in November 2010. Today, however, the last thing the President needs is a fresh confrontation with an uncontested leader of the country which just took the fifth place among the nations which Americans favor the most. And so Obama will just have to tolerate and humor Netanyahu until after the elections, when, as he hopes, he’ll get another crack at the Israeli nut.

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For Netanyahu, the disappointment and mistrust left over the first two years of Washington’s attempts to either bend him to the American will or to replace him altogether must be by now substituted by the profound sense of alarm and bewilderment at Obama’s policies in the region. While the Israeli leader must take into account the possibility that, if re-elected, the President will come after him with a renewed vigor, the main concerns of Netanyahu are strategical.  Having forfeited the opportunity to support the democratic opposition in Iran, Obama then presided over a speedy dissolution of the traditional pro-American secular Arab regimes. The policy of accommodation of the Arab Islamists combined with the impatience and disdain for Israeli warnings against the victory of those forces, the clear preference for the Turkish Islamist Prime Minister over the Israeli one, and the failure to address the issue of relations between Egypt and Israel before it was almost too late – nothing in Obama’s handing of the matters in the Israel’s immediate neighborhood inspires confidence.

Netanyahu has a good reason to resent his own treatment by the White House. While he’d managed to get the most nationalist and religious governing coalition in the recent Israeli history to support the creation of the Palestinian state, Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies did nothing but obstruct and delay the direct final stage negotiations and supplant them with the provocative unilateral initiatives in the UN. Yet it appears that the Obama administration has almost infinite patience with Palestinians, shielding them from retribution both of Israel and the American Congress. Netanyahu, however, is branded as a “con man” unworthy of trust and support.

Over a span of three years, Obama and Netanyahu have not overcome their personal and ideological differences. Now, when both of them are confronted with a challenge of a much larger magnitude – the Iranian nuclear bid – it’s simply too late to pretend that they will tackle it in a spirit of friendliness and bottomless trust.

The presidential rhetoric about the need to prevent Iran from going nuclear cannot mask the fact that in Washington, Iran is not being considered an existential threat. The Obama administration has an ample reason to assume that it won’t be hard for the US to deter a nuclear Iran from any attack on American soil. Therefore, presidential promises of “uncompromising stand” must hold until November – after that, their value will rapidly diminish.

For Israel, nuclear Iran is an existential threat. Even before the widow of a recently dispatched Iranian nuclear scientist confessed that he worked to annihilate the Jewish state, Jerusalem has operated under assumption that if Iran gets a bomb, then in the not very distant future between 50 and 70 thousand Jews will, in a space of a few milliseconds, reach the temperature of the surface of the Sun. Before that happens, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who vowed to prevent the acquisition of an ultimate weapon by Israel’s worst enemy, would probably see his political career destroyed. Each new month of delay brings closer the threshold beyond which the underground nuclear facilities will become impenetrable to the Israeli air assault. In the normal circumstances, the Israeli government will be content with the American promise to do the job if such a necessity arises. Unfortunately, the current circumstances are far  from normal.

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