As Israel and Hamas work out a cease-fire on the battlefield, an even tougher challenge looms for the Jewish state: working out a cease-fire between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama in a diplomatic conflict that threatens to do long-term damage to their two countries’ vital relationship.
As U.S.-Israel relations plummet, there is a growing feeling in both capitals that Netanyahu goes out of his way to damage the relationship, or at least undermine the American president, which is the same thing.
Netanyahu’s repeated clashes with Washington are “causing strategic damage to Israel and significantly hurting its national security,” said Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York. “After slandering the president, trying to humiliate him in front of the cameras in the White House, callously supporting his rival Mitt Romney in the 2012 elections…Netanyahu should not wonder why he is not popular in Washington, DC.”
It is no secret that Obama considers Netanyahu and his national security team both reckless and untrustworthy, while the PM feels the president is weak and naive. Neither side is entirely wrong.
The dust-up over reports that the White House held up delivery of Hellfire missiles for Israel is only the latest clash. It came right after Netanyahu, angry over Secretary of State John Kerry’s handling of cease-fire negotiations and Obama’s criticism of the high civilian casualty toll in Gaza, lashed out at U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
It was a new height of arrogance even for Netanyahu when he told Shapiro that the American administration is “not to ever second guess me again” about Gaza. He said he “expected” the United States and other countries to give him their full support on the Gaza war and not to question his judgment.
That wasn’t the first time Netanyahu has lectured American presidents about their ignorance of the Middle East. After one particularly contentious encounter between Netanyahu and Bill Clinton, an angry president told aides, “Who’s the f***ing superpower here?” according to Ambassador Dennis Ross.
Critics allege Obama has little warmth for Israel; it’s just not in his kishkes the way it was for Clinton or George W. Bush, they say. But the Israeli Right, led by the prime minister himself, can’t keep trashing this president, while American-Jewish leaders largely remain silent, and expect him to be in love.
While the personal relationship between the two leaders is frosty, at the political, diplomatic, financial, and military levels it is thriving, according to sources on both sides, including Netanyahu himself.
Those who try to brand Obama an enemy of Israel over the missile replacements forget that Ronald Reagan halted delivery of F-16s in 1981 and voted to condemn Israel at the UN because of the attack on the Osiraq Iraqi reactor. He halted cluster bomb shipments after the 1982 bombing of Beirut, and later that year tried to repeal some of the military assistance to Israel already approved by Congress because it rejected his administration’s peace plan. Obama has approved the sale of weapons systems and the provision of intelligence refused by some of his predecessors, notably the F-35. And don’t overlook the 1975 Ford-Kissinger “reassessment” of U.S.-Israel relations or the delay of resupply shipments two years earlier during the Yom Kippur War.
Unnamed Israeli officials told The Wall Street Journal that Netanyahu feels he can wait out Obama’s last two and a half years in office while depending on Congress to take his side in any clash with the White House.
But Netanyahu might not be around that long. Israeli media report that the nationalist-settler wing of his Likud party, angry that he failed to deliver on his vow to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza, might doom his coalition before then.
A former Netanyahu colleague said the PM may have lived in America for many years but “he does not really understand the U.S. and tends to see it through his ideology, the more so when he bases his views on reports from (Ambassador Ron) Dermer [a Netanyahu confidante], who is even more a believer. Remember also that Bibi has no strategy besides immediate survival.”
Prof. Dan Schueftan of Haifa University has a different take. He shares Netanyahu’s view that the Obama administration is weak and naive. “We are in a new phase in our relationship with Obama and Kerry. We trust the Egyptians to mediate more than we trust” the White House, he said. While the United States is “rock solid on basic support of Israel,” Obama is now “undermining Israel’s chances of benefiting strategically from the outcome of this war” by letting Hamas believe it can rely on American pressure on Israel.
Obama and Kerry have expressed hope that an outcome of this war will be a renewed commitment by both sides to negotiate a peace agreement. If they believe that, they are as naive as Netanyahu says they are. Any serious peace negotiations are on hold until both sides elect new leadership that is seriously committed to making the tough decisions that Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas have shown themselves incapable of doing.
There’s an old adage that nations don’t have friends, just interests. But if their leaders can’t tolerate each other — and let it show — it endangers the national interest of both countries.