Can friends handle the truth?
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
In the classic courtroom scene in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men, Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is accusing Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) on the stand and demands, “I want the truth!” Jessep replies, “You can’t handle the truth.”
This is the language one is reminded of in observing the dynamics between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past few years. While their Nov. 9 meeting, as reported in the media, actually appears to have gone very well, especially under the circumstances, one wonders if either side is yet willing to accept the truth out of the other’s mouth.
Since Harry Truman recognized the State of Israel in May 1948 the United States and Israel have frequently had policy differences, but, generally, there was never a sense of distrust on either side or questions as to whether the other side was telling the truth. From the time of their first meeting in 2009, however, Obama and Netanyahu have had issues. There have been challenges on both sides as to whether the other had its ally’s best interests at heart, whether they were being truthful with each other.
For the Netanyahu government it comes down to the feeling that if the White House disagreed with anything the Israeli government said or wanted — or its interpretation thereof — it was evidence that the Obama administration did not genuinely have Israel’s back. Only blind acceptance of Israel’s views and positions was a measure of the sincerity of their relationship. In other words, a true friend always believes whatever its friend says.
From the perspective of the U.S. government, it has felt that the administration has been more forthcoming and supportive of Israel than that of almost any American president. President Obama’s trip to Israel was seen as triumphal even if many believed it should have come directly after his visit to Cairo four years earlier. The fact that the two heads of state have disagreed about policy issues including, but not limited to, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, does not mean the United States is not Israel’s unbreakable ally. It also argued that the mark of a really strong bond is when friends do not hesitate to tell friends things they do not like to hear, even if it hurts.
In reflecting on the past seven years of the U.S.-Israel relationship, it perhaps has been domestic politics in both countries that has undermined the relationship more than bilateral considerations. For Netanyahu, his current coalition government, even more than the one before the March 2015 Knesset elections, is more beholden to a right-wing coalition that, it has been suggested, gives him no space to maneuver. The governing group is now composed of more political hard-liners than ever before, so that even if Netanyahu were prepared to make bold and innovative steps for peace with the Palestinians — which he has argued is what the United States has wanted — his government would not tolerate such moves and he could lose his power. It is for this reason that Netanyahu went outside the president and the White House to appeal to Congress to oppose the Iran Deal. Similarly, a long-term settlement freeze, it has been argued, would have created a Cabinet crisis that Netanyahu might have lost — assuming he would have wanted to advocate such a policy in the first place.
For Obama, there was a genuine feeling that Israel did not appreciate the complexity of the positions that the United States faces globally. The consequences of the Arab Spring, the growth of ISIS, and the resurgence of Russia are realities that the president did not face in 2009. In addition, for the majority of the years that Obama has been in the White House, the Democrats have not controlled the Congress. As a result, the president has had to battle with the Congress on a plethora of domestic issues, the result of the Republicans’ refusal to work collegially with him in passing legislation. This necessitated the president’s having to play most of his political chits at home.
In addition, with the American people tired of war, Obama believed that he needed to avoid confrontations wherever possible — even reneging on his “line in the sand” to oppose Syria when it resorted to the use of chemical weapons. Furthermore, both he and Secretary of State John Kerry apparently do believe that pushing Israel to make the first move in negotiations with the Palestinians will draw their president, Mahmoud Abbas, into a serious conversation with Israel and defuse the more radical elements pushing for a one-state solution.
Hopefully, a new direction was forged on Monday so that both sides will again start to trust each other. It certainly appears that the atmosphere was much improved. It remains to be seen whether both sides can return to once again accepting that what its friend says is indeed the truth.