Differences between Obama and Netanyahu diminished

After a six-month absence, stories about sharp differences between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have resurfaced in light of the recent Syria crisis and US-Iran overtures.

Netanyahu and Obama 390 (photo credit: JASON REED / REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Obama 390
(photo credit: JASON REED / REUTERS)
They’re back!
After a six-month absence, stories about sharp differences between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have resurfaced.
These stories began reappearing after Obama balked on military action in Syria, something the pundits determined Israel was pushing for.
They resurfaced last week after Obama said at the UN that his two primary goals in the Middle East were stopping Iran’s nuclear arms development and finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And they reemerged over the weekend following Obama’s 15-minute phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
An Al Jazeera anchor asked an Israeli journalist Sunday how he expected Monday’s meeting between the two leaders to go, given their stormy past. Reuters placed the following headline on a curtain-raiser piece about the meeting: “Iran is biggest test for Obama’s often rocky ties with Netanyahu.”
The narrative pushed in the Reuters piece, and in others like it, was that the two men have huge differences, with a subtext being that they don’t much get along. Many of the default phrases that were used during Obama’s and Netanyahu’s previous terms in office to paint a dysfunctional relationship were trotted out in this article.
“Behind closed doors, their differences over Iran may prove hard to bridge,” the Reuters story read.
“Netanyahu will be in anything but a conciliatory mood;” “Obama and Netanyahu have a track record of difficult encounters;” Netanyahu “famously lectured the president on Jewish history;” Netanyahu “made no secret of his fondness for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who lost to Obama in last year’s presidential election;” Netanyahu is a “sometimes abrasive Israeli premier.”
The mood created with these phrases and by such stories that have appeared over the last month is that the two leaders are once more on a collision course – if not over Egypt, then over Syria; if not over Syria, then over the Palestinians; if not over the Palestinians, then at least over Iran. It’s as if large parts of the media – both in Israel and abroad – cannot accept industrial quiet between the two leaders.
However, since Obama’s visit to Jerusalem in March, the relationship – which conventional wisdom predicted would be horrible this year as Obama would take revenge on Netanyahu for allegedly supporting Romney – has indeed been marked by industrial quiet.
Obama’s visit to Israel in the spring, his own “charm offensive,” changed the tone and dynamic of that relationship.
The “dysfunctional relationship” stories disappeared, and instead what was seen was close coordination on everything from placing Hezbollah on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations, to restarting talks with the Palestinians, to close intelligence coordination during the Syrian crisis.
Israel and the US, however, are not the same country. Their interests are not identical, even though they do intersect more often than not. Differences do exist, but so does intimate cooperation.
All that existed before Obama’s visit in March as well.
But what has changed fundamentally since then was that the differences are now not aired in public. Megaphone diplomacy has been replaced with a quiet attempt to resolve differences far from the glare of the cameras.
The Reuters story reported that Netanyahu was “unnerved” by the pace of the US outreach to Iran. Maybe so, but Netanyahu has given no voice at all to that sentiment, indeed directing his ministers not to speak about the Iranian-American relationship and not saying a word himself – pro or con – about the Obama- Rouhani call.
And that is a major difference.
Exactly a year ago Netanyahu, in a clear reference to Obama, said, “Those in the international community, who refuse to put red lines in front of Iran, don’t have a moral right to put a red light in front of Israel.”
And a year before that, in May 2011, when Netanyahu was on his way to a White House meeting, Obama delivered his speech on the Arab Spring, mentioning for the first time the 1967 lines as a baseline for talks. This was a 2011 equivalent of the Obama- Rouhani conversation.
Netanyahu’s response at the time was swift and harsh; he sent out a scathing response to reporters even as he was on his way to the airport for the flight to DC. This time, however, he was completely quiet, saying not a word about the phone call, or the ties, beyond that he would “tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and the onslaught of smiles.”
What he really thinks about that call and the pace of the US outreach to Iran he will say privately on Monday to Obama.
Much of the media is looking for daylight between Obama and Netanyahu; that’s sexy news.
Daylight exists between them, obviously. But unlike the nine other meetings that took place before Obama’s visit in March, this daylight will likely not filter out from behind the closed White House doors. And that, from Netanyahu’s point of view, is the most lasting achievement from when the two men met last six months ago in Jerusalem.