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 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in a diplomatic conflict that threatens to do long-term damage to their two countries’ vital relationship.
As US-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 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 prime minister feels the president is weak and naïve. Neither one is entirely wrong.
The dust-up over reports that the White House held up delivery of Hellfire missiles to 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 US 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. CNN reported Netanyahu did not deny the statement.
That wasn’t the first time Netanyahu has lectured American presidents about their ignorance of the Middle East.
After one particularly contentious encounter in which Netanyahu reprimanded Bill Clinton, an angry president told aides, “Who the f*** does he think he is? Who’s the f***ing superpower here?” according to ambassador Dennis Ross. Clinton’s press secretary, Joe Lockhart, who was there, described Netanyahu as “one of the most obnoxious individuals you’re going to come into – just a liar and a cheat.”
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 Osirak 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 the 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 US-Israel relations or the delay of resupply shipments two years earlier during the Yom Kippur War.
The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed Israeli officials telling it that Netanyahu feels he can wait out Obama’s last two and a half years in office and depend on the Congress to give him the support he wants in any clash with the White House.
But Netanyahu might not be around that long.
Israeli media report he faces a revolt in the nationalist- settler wing of his Likud party and if leadership elections were held today he could be out. They’re angry that he failed to deliver on his vow to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza and appears to be settling for a cease-fire that rewards Hamas.
A former Netanyahu colleague who has known and worked with him said the prime minister may have lived in America for many years but “he does not really understand the US and tends to see it through his ideology, the more so when he bases his views on reports from [Ambassador Ron] Dermer [a former GOP operative and 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 them,” he said. While the US 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 America to put pressure on Israel.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said there is “a complete lack of trust” between the president and the prime minister and it endangers the US-Israel relationship, which he called a “vital strategic asset.”
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 naïve as Netanyahu says they are. The most this round of fighting can be expected to achieve is to buy time, maybe a couple of years, until the rockets fly again.
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 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have shown themselves incapable of.
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.