Israeli political correspondents experienced deja vu Wednesday following the
reelection of US President Barack Obama. They immediately started receiving
press releases from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political opponents
warning the public that Netanyahu would not be able to get along with Obama.
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz’s statement was the fiercest, calling the prime
minister “persona non-grata” in the White House.
issued similar warnings in November 2008 and were by-in-large proven correct
over the next four years.
When The Jerusalem Post printed such
accusations from Netanyahu’s rivals back then, a veteran observer of US-Israel
relations called to object: Jewish Agency chairman Natan
Sharansky’s claim that Netanyahu and Obama would indeed get
along did not bear fruit, but another prediction he made at the time did. He
said what causes problems between countries was not differences of opinion over
policy but what he called “playing games” and surprising each
There have been instances when Netanyahu’s behavior surprised
Obama and vice versa, and it certainly did not help their relationship. The most
obvious example was the Ramat Shlomo incident during the 2010 Israel visit of US
Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama and his administration accused Netanyahu
of surprising him by advancing a building project in a Jerusalem neighborhood
that is over the Green Line during Biden’s visit. The fact that Netanyahu was
not involved in the decision and had never even heard of the neighborhood did
not ease the damage done by the surprise.
On the other side, Obama
repeatedly surprised Netanyahu’s administration with diplomatic initiatives and
unrealistic demands to stop building in consensus areas over the Green Line that
ultimately prevented negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians from
getting off the ground. Announcing a Middle East peace plan in Washington the
day before Netanyahu was due to arrive, as Obama did in March 2011, was another
surprise that did not help them build warm ties.
More recent incidents
have proven that Netanyahu and Obama have learned to not surprise each other.
When Obama sent overtures to Iran via Turkey on a possible deal on uranium
enrichment last year, Netanyahu could have been expected to express outrage, but
he didn’t, because he was clearly in the loop.
With another possible deal
with Iran reportedly in the works and another Palestinian attempt at United
Nations recognition brewing, there will soon be tests to see whether Netanyahu and Obama will start off the president’s
second term better than his first.
Another key to improving the
relationship between the two leaders is not interfering in each other’s domestic
politics, which they both have done repeatedly over the past four
Most recently, Netanyahu was accused of interfering in Obama’s
race by pressuring him to adopt tougher red lines on Iran.
associates have insisted that his intentions were noble: Making the
international bid to prevent Iran’s nuclearization more effective.
the prime minister’s critics respond that Netanyahu should know to be more
careful during such a sensitive time for a president seeking
Interestingly, sources close to Netanyahu use the red line
incident as proof that he did not bet on the wrong horse in the race. He tried
to use leverage he thought he had over Obama before the election, because he
assumed Obama would win.
Obama’s administration has caused Netanyahu
political problems by repeatedly leaking stories to Israeli media, usually
Yediot Aharonot. The most recent example was a headline last month quoting
American sources about what Netanyahu gave up in diplomatic talks with Syria
before civil war broke out there.
That damaging headline was seen as an
attempt by the Obama administration to deter Netanyahu from interfering in the
US race. It is a safe bet that Obama will be wise enough to refrain from
interfering in the current Israeli election campaign, knowing that it would only
play into Netanyahu’s hands and help him politically.
The final key to
the success of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship is to ensure that there will be
no “daylight” between the two countries. That term came into use following a
controversial 2009 meeting between Obama and Jewish leaders in which, when asked
why he let there be daylight between him and Israel, he said the Bush
administration’s no-daylight approach did not succeed.
Assuming he wins
the January election, Netanyahu is likely to go to Washington for the March 3
AIPAC policy conference immediately after the formation of his new government.
His expected meeting with Obama there could be key to determining how they will
get along for the next four years.
The announcement of a forthcoming
Obama visit to Israel, his first as president, at that meeting would go a long
way to ensuring that four years from now, correspondents look back at their
relationship much differently.•