After a six-month absence, stories about sharp differences between
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have
These stories began reappearing after Obama balked on
military action in Syria, something the pundits determined Israel was pushing
They resurfaced last week after Obama said at the UN that his two
primary goals in the Middle East were stopping Iran’s nuclear arms development
and finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they reemerged
over the weekend following Obama’s 15-minute phone call with Iranian President
An Al Jazeera anchor asked an Israeli journalist Sunday
how he expected Monday’s meeting between the two leaders to go, given their
stormy past. Reuters placed the following headline on a curtain-raiser piece
about the meeting: “Iran is biggest test for Obama’s often rocky ties with
The narrative pushed in the Reuters piece, and in others like
it, was that the two men have huge differences, with a subtext being that they
don’t much get along. Many of the default phrases that were used during Obama’s
and Netanyahu’s previous terms in office to paint a dysfunctional relationship
were trotted out in this article.
“Behind closed doors, their differences
over Iran may prove hard to bridge,” the Reuters story read.
will be in anything but a conciliatory mood;” “Obama and Netanyahu have a track
record of difficult encounters;” Netanyahu “famously lectured the president on
Jewish history;” Netanyahu “made no secret of his fondness for Republican
challenger Mitt Romney, who lost to Obama in last year’s presidential election;”
Netanyahu is a “sometimes abrasive Israeli premier.”
The mood created
with these phrases and by such stories that have appeared over the last month is
that the two leaders are once more on a collision course – if not over Egypt,
then over Syria; if not over Syria, then over the Palestinians; if not over the
Palestinians, then at least over Iran. It’s as if large parts of the media –
both in Israel and abroad – cannot accept industrial quiet between the two
However, since Obama’s visit to Jerusalem in March, the
relationship – which conventional wisdom predicted would be horrible this year
as Obama would take revenge on Netanyahu for allegedly supporting Romney – has
indeed been marked by industrial quiet.
Obama’s visit to Israel in the
spring, his own “charm offensive,” changed the tone and dynamic of that
The “dysfunctional relationship” stories disappeared, and
instead what was seen was close coordination on everything from placing
Hezbollah on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations, to restarting talks with
the Palestinians, to close intelligence coordination during the Syrian
Israel and the US, however, are not the same country. Their
interests are not identical, even though they do intersect more often than not.
Differences do exist, but so does intimate cooperation.
All that existed
before Obama’s visit in March as well.
But what has changed fundamentally
since then was that the differences are now not aired in public. Megaphone
diplomacy has been replaced with a quiet attempt to resolve differences far from
the glare of the cameras.
The Reuters story reported that Netanyahu was
“unnerved” by the pace of the US outreach to Iran. Maybe so, but Netanyahu has
given no voice at all to that sentiment, indeed directing his ministers not to
speak about the Iranian-American relationship and not saying a word himself –
pro or con – about the Obama- Rouhani call.
And that is a major
Exactly a year ago Netanyahu, in a clear reference to Obama,
said, “Those in the international community, who refuse to put red lines in
front of Iran, don’t have a moral right to put a red light in front of
And a year before that, in May 2011, when Netanyahu was on his
way to a White House meeting, Obama delivered his speech on the Arab Spring,
mentioning for the first time the 1967 lines as a baseline for talks. This was a
2011 equivalent of the Obama- Rouhani conversation.
at the time was swift and harsh; he sent out a scathing response to reporters
even as he was on his way to the airport for the flight to DC. This time,
however, he was completely quiet, saying not a word about the phone call, or the
ties, beyond that he would “tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and the
onslaught of smiles.”
What he really thinks about that call and the pace
of the US outreach to Iran he will say privately on Monday to Obama.
of the media is looking for daylight between Obama and Netanyahu; that’s sexy
Daylight exists between them, obviously. But unlike the nine other
meetings that took place before Obama’s visit in March, this daylight will
likely not filter out from behind the closed White House doors. And that, from
Netanyahu’s point of view, is the most lasting achievement from when the two men
met last six months ago in Jerusalem.