Analysis: PM’s trip shows need for better read on DC mood

If Netanyahu answered “yes” to the list of demands Obama placed before him, Would this solve his problem with the administration?

By
March 29, 2010 00:48
4 minute read.
Barack Obama

Obama smiles 58. (photo credit: Associated Press)

A spoof of an Associated Press article, headlined, “Passover Hagaddah conclusion ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ deemed ‘unhelpful’ by Obama administration,” made the Internet rounds on Friday, and the degree to which people fell for the prank speaks volumes about Israel’s current relationship with the US.

According to the “article,” which even though purportedly written by one Shana Habbab, still looked and felt genuine, “An unidentified Israeli official has confirmed that private discussions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included a strong request from the president that the upcoming Passover holiday not include the familiar refrain of ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ citing the passage as being provocative and unhelpful for future peace talks.

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“The administration suggested replacing it with ‘next year in peace’ or ‘next year in Israel,’ but leaving the final wording up to both the Israelis and Palestinians.”

This e-mail was sent to thousands, and the fact that some rather astute people fell for the spoof indicates the degree of mistrust that many Israeli and US Jews harbor toward Obama. That people actually believed this story was real illustrates the depth of Israel’s problems right now with the US.

For argument’s sake, imagine that Netanyahu answered “yes” to the actual laundry list of demands Obama placed before him. Would this solve his problem with the Obama administration? Would trust reign again between Jerusalem and Washington? It doesn’t feel that way.

What is blatantly apparent right now, in this period of crisis between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office, is that the prime minister is in need of better information and intelligence about what is going on in the White House.

One has to wonder whether Netanyahu would have gone to the US last week and asked for a meeting with Obama if he had known what awaited him there.

Obama’s adviser David Axelrod can stand up on CNN Sunday and say that the administration intended Netanyahu no snub, but when the prime minister is – for the second visit in a row – invited to the White House at night, without a photo opportunity or a joint statement, and treated – as Jackson Diehl wrote last week in The Washington Post – like an “unsavory Third World dictator,” then that seems an awful lot like a snub.

If Netanyahu didn’t realize that this was the reception he would receive in Obama’s White House, one has to ask, why not? During the Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert years, there were very strong relations with the White House. Sharon could call then-president George W. Bush, Sharon’s top aid Dov Weissglas had excellent ties with Bush’s national security adviser at the time, Condoleezza Rice, and with others in the NSC staff, including Elliott Abrams.

Olmert also had excellent ties with Bush, and his chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and foreign policy adviser Shalom Turgeman developed good ties with a friendly White House staff. Olmert’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, had good relations with Rice, who was Bush’s secretary of state during his second term.

But a year into Netanyahu’s term, there does not seem to be any similar line of communication between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House. Granted, staffers talk regularly to one another on the phone, but the intimacy that should have set some warning lights flashing in Jerusalem, that could have warned Netanyahu not to go to AIPAC last week and to send a video message instead, simply doesn’t seem to exist.

Netanyahu does not talk regularly or informally with Obama, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has no strong channel of communication with his counterpart, and no one has emerged in the Prime Minister’s Office as Netanyahu’s Weissglas in dealings with the Americans.

Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, a man who has a tremendous ability to explain Israel’s positions in the media, does not – according to diplomatic officials – have the kind of access to the White House that his predecessors enjoyed under the Bush administration.

Oren’s predecessors were lucky, however; they were dealing with a friendly administration. Increasingly it appears that Oren is not dealing with a friendly administration, at least not an administration friendly to this government. This makes Oren’s job all the more difficult, but also all the more important.

The Obama administration, for its own reasons, seems keen on keeping the Netanyahu government at arm’s length. Even those on the Left who are thrilled that the US is applying pressure on Israel have to ask what purpose is served by applying that pressure so publicly.

Had the administration wanted to get a positive response from Netanyahu to its demands – stop east Jerusalem construction, continue the housing start moratorium in the West Bank – it could have pressed him in private, and then he could possibly have given something in private, and been able to save face.

But when the pressure is so public, when it appears that the administration is coming down especially heavily on Netanyahu while giving the Palestinians and the Arab world a pass, then Washington is leaving him little room to maneuver – since both for domestic political reasons as well as for wider regional, strategic ones, the prime minister cannot appear to be bowing completely to US dictates.  


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