Obama-Netanyahu: It’s not personal

Differences about Iran, Islamic State and the Palestinians are real and deep and rooted in vastly different governing philosophies.

Obama and Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama and Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK – Within minutes of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s meeting in the Oval Office Wednesday with US President Barack Obama, their second this year, there will be those who will analyze their body language.
Did they look tense or happy in each other’s presence? Were their arms folded or open? Were their legs crossed or straight down? Did they smile? Did they engage in banter? Did Obama looked pained that Netanyahu dined two nights ago with Sheldon Adelson, the main backer of Obama’s challenger, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 elections? And all that will be done in an attempt to analyze to what degree the two leaders – determined by destiny to work together – like or dislike each other. All this will be done to make it personal.
Although personal relationships are important at highest levels, just as they are in everyday life, the differences between Netanyahu and Obama over a wide range of issues – from Iran, to the Palestinians, to seeing Hamas as the same as Islamic State, or not seeing them as such – are not personal. These are differences stemming from vastly different animating political philosophies.
Were Obama an Israeli, he would most likely vote for Meretz. Were Netanyahu an American citizen, he would probably be a Republican governor somewhere. Those are real differences.
It’s not personal, it’s philosophical.
And those different philosophies came out clear in the speeches the two men gave over the last week at the UN General Assembly.
Obama’s speech, though tough on Islamic State, was shot through with hope, with looking for causes for the rise of extremism and wanting to treat those causes, careful to say that you can’t judge all of Islam by a few extremists.
Netanyahu’s speech was black and white, almost Reaganesque in his good-and-evil take on the world: The Islamic radicals, all Islamic radicals, are evil and strive for world domination.
They are, in his view, the new Nazis – a way of characterizing them that would never cross Obama’s lips.
The Islamic extremists Obama mentioned are Islamic State, al-Qaida, Boko Haram. No mention, in his speech, of the two radical Islamic groups that are Israel’s scourge: Hamas and Hezbollah.
Likewise, not for Obama is Netanyahu’s comparing Islamic State’s goals with the already existing Islamic state of Iran. No, for Obama there is still room for America to pursue a diplomatic resolution with Tehran.
“My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: Do not let this opportunity pass,” he said. “We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”
Netanyahu’s message to the world and to Obama, as articulated in his speech to the UN Monday, was that Iran is simply trying to “bamboozle” the world into lifting sanctions so it can go on pursuing its ambition of becoming a nuclear threshold state.
And then there is the issue of the Palestinians, an issue Obama discussed directly in his address to the world body.
“Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace.”
The violence engulfing the region today, he said, “has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace. But let’s be clear: the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is not sustainable. We cannot afford to turn away from this effort – not when rockets are fired at innocent Israelis, or the lives of so many Palestinian children are taken from us in Gaza.”
“So long as I am president, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the world will be more just with two states living side by side, in peace and security.”
There was nothing in his comments about a new approach – after 20 years of trying direct negotiations toward two states that led nowhere – about it perhaps being time for a new paradigm.
Netanyahu talked about this new paradigm in very general terms, of an amorphous partnership with moderate Arab states that could then lead to peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu seems to have ditched the Oslo approach, as has Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama still has not.
Those differences – about Iran, about Islamic State, about the Palestinians – are real and deep and rooted in vastly different governing philosophies, in vastly different ways the two men look at the world. It’s about that, not about whether they like each other.