Analysis: Ghosts of Netanyahu-Obama meetings past

PM, US president are set to meet Wednesday in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

September 21, 2016 11:02

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama against a backdrop of Israeli flags and American flags. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits down with US President Barack Obama at about noon Wednesday in the Lotte New York Palace hotel in Manhattan, it will be the 17th face-to-face meeting between the two men.

That’s a lot of face time.

Granted, it’s two shy of the number of meetings Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush had in his eight years in office with the two prime ministers he dealt with – Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – but it is still a large number of meetings.

Especially considering that while Bush got along swimmingly with both Sharon and Olmert, the same cannot exactly be said of Obama and Netanyahu.
What the UN General Assembly means for Israel

While each of the Bush-Sharon and Bush-Olmert meetings was obviously significant at the time, none of them is particularly memorable to the public.

With the exception of Sharon’s meeting with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2005, one would be hard pressed to conjure up a particular image from any of those meetings.

The same cannot be said of the Obama-Netanyahu parleys.

Of the 16 previous meetings, five stand out, as does one meeting that never took place.

Indeed, just as the epic 1970s prize fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were given names that live on to this day – the “Fight of the Century” and the “Thrilla in Manilla” – so two have some of the Netanyahu- Obama meetings been given titles.

There was the first meeting in May 2009, dubbed by some in Jerusalem as “The Ambush”; the late night meeting in the White House in 2010 known as “The Snub”; and the meeting in the Oval Office a year later popularly referred to as “The Lecture.”

US President Barack Obama (R) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 2009 (Reuters)

Considering the relatively lack of contentiousness between the two leaders at this time, it is unlikely Wednesday’s meeting – which might later be dubbed “The Last Hurrah” – will live up in terms of drama to some of the previous ones. As such, in order to put Wednesday’s meeting in a certain historical context, it’s worth looking back at some of the previous more memorable tête–à–têtes.

The Ambush

The first meeting between the two leaders took place in May 2009, just a few months after the US elected a president significantly to the Left of his predecessor, and the Israeli public elected a prime minister significantly to the Right of his predecessor.

Although on paper this already raised doubts about their compatibility – given the two men had starkly different worldviews – many believed that the first meeting would go smoothly, as both leaders would want to put on a harmonious face.

But many were wrong.

Obama was keen on placing daylight between himself and Israel, believing – as veteran diplomat Dennis Ross wrote in his book Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama – that by distancing himself from Israel he could improve relations with the Muslim world.

So distancing he did, and at the press opportunity that followed their meeting Obama called for a complete settlement freeze. During their private meeting, Obama went even further and called for an end to construction in east Jerusalem.

One senior official who was involved in that meeting told The Jerusalem Post afterward that Israel had received no warning that this would be the nature of the conversation. “Netanyahu felt ambushed,” the official said.

The Snub

That first meeting set the tone for numerous clashes over settlement construction that would continue throughout the duration of the Obama-Netanyahu era. The clashes came to a head during a late night meeting in the White House in March 2010, just a couple weeks after a blowup with Washington over the announcement during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel of plans to build in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in northern Jerusalem, beyond the Green Line.

Netanyahu arrived at the White House in his limo without any pomp or circumstance: no cameras, no reporters, no lights, no Marine guards or protocol officers.

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl described the scene like this: “Tuesday night the White House refused to allow non-official photographers to record the president’s meeting with Netanyahu; no statement was issued afterward. Netanyahu is being treated as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator, needed for strategic reasons but conspicuously held at arm’s length.”

After an hour meeting, Obama and Netanyahu came out of their meeting, and Obama announced that Netanyahu and the Israeli team were to work out a timetable – including a construction freeze – on fulfilling conditions he laid out for ending the crisis.

Obama then announced that he was going upstairs to retire, leaving the Israelis to work with his team downstairs. (Political lore has it that Obama left the Israelis to go dine with his wife and two daughters, an account disputed by Israel’s ambassador at the time, Michael Oren, who wrote in his book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, that Michelle Obama and her daughters were out of town at the time.) Regardless, the perception created was of a president who purposely “disrespected” the prime minister.

Obama,Netanyahu and Abbas in Washington September 1, 2010 (Reuters)

The Lecture

Netanyahu got his chance to return the favor a little more than a year later, in May 2011.

Just hours before Netanyahu boarded a plane for Washington to address the annual AIPAC conference, Obama delivered his first speech on the Middle East following the “Arab Spring.” He infuriated Netanyahu by breaking with past US declarations and using the 1967 lines, albeit with mutual land swaps, as the baseline for a future agreement with the Palestinians.

Motivated to a degree by domestic political considerations, wanting to be seen as able to stand up to the US president, Netanyahu immediately issued a sharp and angry reaction to that speech. And then, at the photo opportunity that accompanied their meeting, he “lectured” the president on Jewish and Mideast history.

“Israel wants peace. I want peace. What we all want is a peace that will be genuine, that will hold, that will endure,” Netanyahu said. “The only peace that will endure is one that is based on reality, on unshakable facts. I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities.”

As Netanyahu spoke, Obama sat tensely with a clenched jaw.

The Ice Breaker

After four difficult years, and a number of tense and even awkward meetings and public appearances, the sun began to shine on the Obama-Netanyahu relationship in March 2013 when Obama made his first and only visit to Israel as president.

The downright chummy tone of the visit was set when Netanyahu and Obama walked together – jackets jauntily thrown over their shoulders – on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport soon after the president’s arrival.

US President Barack Obama walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he views an Iron Dome Defense Battery at Ben-Gurion International Airport, March 20, 2013

At a press conference that night they joked about their children and their wives, and referred to each other throughout as Bibi and Barack. The display was clearly meant to send a signal that following high-profile clashes about the Palestinians and Iran, the two were back on the same page.

The Non-Meeting

The honeymoon that Obama’s trip ushered in was short, though the clashes that followed had less to do with the Palestinian issue – even as those differences did remain a constant irritant in the relationship – and more with the Iran deal.

The degree to which the Iranian issue strained the ties between the two men became clear in March 2015, when Netanyahu infuriated Obama by accepting an invitation from Republican speaker of the house John Boehner to speak against the Iranian deal to a joint session of Congress.

Despite the White House’s disapproval, Netanyahu went to Washington to deliver his speech.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015 (Reuters)

Obama refused to meet him. The official reason given: He did not want to interfere in the Israeli election.

Only a few believed that was the true reason.

The Reconciliation… of Sorts

Eight months after the meeting that didn’t happen, and a couple months after the bruising battle over the Iran deal was won by the US president, the two leaders finally got together last November for what looked from the outside like a reconciliation of sorts.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, November 2015 (AFP)

The two men took pains during a cordial photo opportunity to radiate a sense that – after the bitter Iran battle – they were letting bygones be bygones. During the brief photo-op following their meeting, they stressed what united them, rather than what divided them.

Both said what they knew the other wanted to hear. Obama talked about increasing the 10-year military aid package to Israel (which he subsequently has done), and about blunting Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region. He also did not speak about a return to the 1967 lines, or a construction freeze in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

And Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution, and thanked the president for bolstering Israel’s security. He didn’t mention the Iran agreement.

That was the last time the two men met, and the tone of that meeting will likely carry over to their meeting on Wednesday.

Neither man has an interest now in the fireworks of their previous bouts. Not Netanyahu, because such an outcome would only strengthen his political opponents claiming that he has badly damaged ties with the US; and not Obama, because a public fight with Netanyahu now – just two months before America goes to the polls – could hurt Hillary Clinton in what is turning into a closer than expected election.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, March 22, 2013 (WHITE HOUSE/PETE SOUZA)

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