OTTAWA – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is leaving Ottawa Sunday morning,
where he had a very friendly meeting with a very friendly prime minister, for
Washington and his ninth meeting with US President Barack Obama.
meetings with the president of the United States is not an insignificant number.
But this meeting is shaping up to be different from the other eight for three
First, this is the prime minister’s first trip abroad since
taking office in 2009 without his trusted chief of staff, Natan Eshel. Eshel – who up
until the one-day trip Netanyahu took to Cyprus last month had been by the prime
minister’s side on each of his voyages abroad – was important to Netanyahu
because he gave him peace of mind. Eshel ran interference on political and
personnel matters so that Netanyahu had the industrial quiet he needed to think
about and deal with the larger issues.
And with Eshel gone – he signed a
plea bargain agreement last month that forced him out of office because of
inappropriate conduct toward a female subordinate known only as “R.” – the Prime
Minister’s Office has been turned upside down. Netanyahu will walk into the Oval
Office on Monday – some are calling it the most fateful meeting so far because
of the focus on Iran – with a staff that has just undergone a major
Not only is Netanyahu’s top adviser no longer by his side, but
his communications director, Yoaz Hendel – a strategic thinker in his own right
– has resigned as a result of the affair, making Liran Dan, Netanyahu’s
spokesman since August, in charge of the messaging.
While Dan has
traveled abroad before with the prime minister, he did so as a spokesman to
field journalists’ questions, not as the person in charge of shaping the public
message. He is coming off the bench during a very critical part of the
Two of Netanyahu’s other top advisers have the Eshel
cloud hanging over them – cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser and military attaché
Maj.-Gen. Yohanan Locker. Both men, along with Hendel, took R.’s complaints to
the authorities, and were criticized by Netanyahu for doing so without
approaching him first.
Granted, Netanyahu – in an apparent attempt to put
his office at ease before the trip – extended Locker’s tenure on Wednesday until
the end of the year. Yet humans being humans, both Locker and Hauser must be
wondering whether they still have the trust and confidence of the prime
minister. Netanyahu told Hendel and Hauser point blank they no longer have that
confidence, and Hendel resigned as a result.
In a perfect world the
country’s citizens should be able to go to sleep knowing their prime minister is
entering a meeting with the leader of the free world to talk about an
existential issue such as the Iranian threat with both a clear head and a
disciplined, loyal, happy, trusting staff.
Netanyahu is not taking such a
staff to Washington.
Much has been written about the less than ideal
relationship that exists between the White House and the Prime Minister’s
Office, and about how the intimacy, chemistry and trust that existed during the
Bush years, and part of the Clinton presidency, does not exist today. With Iran
on the line, one would want – again in a perfect world – an intimate and
harmonious relationship to exist between the two offices. One would also want
harmony and trust inside the Prime Minister’s Office itself. Even that, right
now, does not exist.
A second major difference in this trip is the degree
to which the Palestinian diplomatic track is a non-issue. Just five months after
the Palestinian gambit at the United Nations, and all the concern about what it
would bring in its wake, Netanyahu is meeting Obama with nobody focusing on the
While Iran was an issue in each of Netanyahu’s previous
meeting with Obama, the focus – and the public attention – was all on the
In their last meeting at the UN in September it was about
the statehood bid. Before that, last May, the meeting revolved around Obama’s
call for an accord to be based on a full return to the June 4, 1967, lines, with
mutually-agreed land swaps. And before that, in 2010, the meetings were
dominated by the settlement issue.
The focus on the Palestinians during
those talks meant that the differences between Obama and Netanyahu were
highlighted. And there were differences, significant ones relating not only to
the settlements but also to questions such as the applicability any more of the
whole land for peace equation – with Obama still locked into it, and Netanyahu,
looking at experience, much more skeptical that it works.
even though the talks with the Palestinians are at a stalemate, events have
conspired to force that issue off the agenda – with the focus, both of Obama and
Netanyahu, but also of the rest of the world, more on Iran and even Syria. The
Palestinian issue has taken a back seat.
The good news from Netanyahu’s
point of view is that this means there are fewer sources of friction with Obama.
As many differences as there might be between the two men regarding Iran, they
are not as many as the gaps between them on the Palestinian issue.
bad news is that if the Palestinians feel that they have been forgotten, they
make take violent action to get the world’s attention again.
third major difference about this meeting is that it is taking place during a US
election year. Obama needs Jewish donors and voters, especially in key
battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada.
he does not need is a public dustup with Netanyahu that would reinforce a sense
among at least a certain segment of American Jews that in his heart-of-hearts,
the US president is more sympathetic toward the Arabs than to
While during the first two years of his presidency Obama seemed
to have few qualms about publicly “showing daylight” between Israel and the US,
as he famously said in a conversation with Jewish leaders in the early days of
his tenure, now those calculations have changed.
Back then Obama believed
that publicly airing disagreements might force Netanyahu’s hand, might place
Israeli public pressure on him to change course, or might win the US credit in
the Arab world as an honest broker.
But now, eight months before the US
election, this type of behavior does little more than risk antagonizing voters
for whom Israel is a critical issue.
This will likely be the last meeting
the two will have during Obama’s first term in office, since a visit later in
the year is unlikely because it could be perceived as Netanyahu’s meddling in an
Netanyahu should enjoy the moment, because it will not
last forever. And if Obama does win the next election, and the two meet again
soon after, the president’s calculations will be different once again.