Politics: Keys to positive Netanyahu-Obama relations

No surprises, no political interference, no daylight.

Netnayahu and Obama stroll in Whtie House 390 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Netnayahu and Obama stroll in Whtie House 390
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Israeli political correspondents experienced deja vu Wednesday following the reelection of US President Barack Obama. They immediately started receiving press releases from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political opponents warning the public that Netanyahu would not be able to get along with Obama. Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz’s statement was the fiercest, calling the prime minister “persona non-grata” in the White House.
Netanyahu’s opponents issued similar warnings in November 2008 and were by-in-large proven correct over the next four years.
When The Jerusalem Post printed such accusations from Netanyahu’s rivals back then, a veteran observer of US-Israel relations called to object: Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky’s claim that Netanyahu and Obama would indeed get along did not bear fruit, but another prediction he made at the time did. He said what causes problems between countries was not differences of opinion over policy but what he called “playing games” and surprising each other.
There have been instances when Netanyahu’s behavior surprised Obama and vice versa, and it certainly did not help their relationship. The most obvious example was the Ramat Shlomo incident during the 2010 Israel visit of US Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama and his administration accused Netanyahu of surprising him by advancing a building project in a Jerusalem neighborhood that is over the Green Line during Biden’s visit. The fact that Netanyahu was not involved in the decision and had never even heard of the neighborhood did not ease the damage done by the surprise.
On the other side, Obama repeatedly surprised Netanyahu’s administration with diplomatic initiatives and unrealistic demands to stop building in consensus areas over the Green Line that ultimately prevented negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians from getting off the ground. Announcing a Middle East peace plan in Washington the day before Netanyahu was due to arrive, as Obama did in March 2011, was another surprise that did not help them build warm ties.
More recent incidents have proven that Netanyahu and Obama have learned to not surprise each other. When Obama sent overtures to Iran via Turkey on a possible deal on uranium enrichment last year, Netanyahu could have been expected to express outrage, but he didn’t, because he was clearly in the loop.
With another possible deal with Iran reportedly in the works and another Palestinian attempt at United Nations recognition brewing, there will soon be tests to see whether Netanyahu and Obama will start off the president’s second term better than his first.
Another key to improving the relationship between the two leaders is not interfering in each other’s domestic politics, which they both have done repeatedly over the past four years.
Most recently, Netanyahu was accused of interfering in Obama’s race by pressuring him to adopt tougher red lines on Iran.
Netanyahu’s associates have insisted that his intentions were noble: Making the international bid to prevent Iran’s nuclearization more effective.
But the prime minister’s critics respond that Netanyahu should know to be more careful during such a sensitive time for a president seeking reelection.
Interestingly, sources close to Netanyahu use the red line incident as proof that he did not bet on the wrong horse in the race. He tried to use leverage he thought he had over Obama before the election, because he assumed Obama would win.
Obama’s administration has caused Netanyahu political problems by repeatedly leaking stories to Israeli media, usually Yediot Aharonot. The most recent example was a headline last month quoting American sources about what Netanyahu gave up in diplomatic talks with Syria before civil war broke out there.
That damaging headline was seen as an attempt by the Obama administration to deter Netanyahu from interfering in the US race. It is a safe bet that Obama will be wise enough to refrain from interfering in the current Israeli election campaign, knowing that it would only play into Netanyahu’s hands and help him politically.
The final key to the success of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship is to ensure that there will be no “daylight” between the two countries. That term came into use following a controversial 2009 meeting between Obama and Jewish leaders in which, when asked why he let there be daylight between him and Israel, he said the Bush administration’s no-daylight approach did not succeed.
Assuming he wins the January election, Netanyahu is likely to go to Washington for the March 3 AIPAC policy conference immediately after the formation of his new government. His expected meeting with Obama there could be key to determining how they will get along for the next four years.
The announcement of a forthcoming Obama visit to Israel, his first as president, at that meeting would go a long way to ensuring that four years from now, correspondents look back at their relationship much differently.•