There are those who would chalk up the current difficulties in the US-Israeli relationship to a lack of chemistry or fondness between the two leaders. There are those who would look at the current tension and attribute it to Obama’s coldness, or Netanyahu’s arrogance.
But they would be wrong. Because what was on display in the White House Friday for the world to see was not a personality clash, but rather a conceptual one.
Analysis: What rankled Netanyahu in the Obama speech
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Mideast Quartet supports Obama's vision for peace
What happened Friday afternoon in the White House was actually exceptional. Less than 24-hours after US President Barack Obama -- the most powerful man on the planet -- called on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines with mutual land swaps, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu -- sitting right next to the president -- said for the whole world to see that this was not going to happen; that it was a risk Israel simply could not take.
“I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept
some basic realities,” Netanyahu said in a blunt rebuttal of Obama’s
proposal. “The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous
compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines -- because
these lines are indefensible; because they don’t take into account
certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes
that have taken place over the last 44 years.”
This isn’t a personal crisis, it is not the result of a ”bad connection”
or “bad blood" between the leaders. Rather, it is reflective of
significantly different way of viewing reality. Even were Obama and
Netanyahu to get along as swimmingly as Prince William and Kate Middleton,
wide chasms in how each views their country’s interests and what is and
is not possible would still separate the two. Obama essentially
believes in the land for peace formula, and that what it will take to
solve the Israeli-Arab conflict is a painful ceding of Israeli land.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, believes, based on past experience, that
this will not do the trick nor ensure Israel’s security -- so forget
Moreover, there is also a significant rift regarding timing.
“For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and
the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of
work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet,”
Obama said during his speech Thursday evening. “The world looks at a
conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but
stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change
and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward
“I disagree,” Obama said. “At a time when the people of the Middle East
and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a
lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more
urgent than ever.”
The person he is disagreeing with is Netanyahu, because Netanyahu
believes that with everything else happening in the Arab world, and
Israel really not knowing what will happen to any of its regional
partners -- Egypt, Jordan and the PA with the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation
-- this is not the time to delve forward and take huge risks. Rather,
he believes this is the time to step back and let the dust settle before
taking daring next moves. And that, indeed, is a fundamentally
different way of viewing the current regional reality.
The differences are real and genuine. Neither Obama, facing re-election
next year and a divided Congress, nor Netanyahu -- with Opposition
leader Tzipi Livni blaming him for poisoning Israeli-US ties -- need
this squabble right now. It doesn’t help Obama with his Jewish
constituency, and being cast as the US-Israel relationship-wrecker is
not exactly the ticket Netanyahu wants to ride on in his next elections.
But yet the squabble is there, because this crisis can’t be reduced to a
conflict of personalities. Rather, it is a conflict of competing
perceptions of reality.