Why is this Netanyahu-Obama meeting different?

Analysis: Obama once had few qualms about “showing daylight” between Israel, US... those calculations have now changed.

Netanyahu Obama 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Netanyahu Obama 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
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.
Nine 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 main reasons.
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 upheaval.
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 game.
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 Palestinians.
While Iran was an issue in each of Netanyahu’s previous meeting with Obama, the focus – and the public attention – was all on the Palestinians.
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.
Now, however, 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.
The 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.
And the 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.
What 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 Israel.
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 election campaign.
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.