It was their first meeting in more than a year -- and their first meeting since the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal
The White House doesn't deny that the two men aren't close, but it wants to hand a functional relationship onto Obama's successor
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu seem like they are done fighting.
Like boxers who have wiped themselves out in a sapping title fight but failed to land a knockout punch, the leaders of the United States and Israel on Monday settled on what looked like an exhausted truce.
It was their first meeting in more than a year – and, more importantly, their first meeting since the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear deal opened up a chasm between their governments.
While no one would mistake the two men for friends, Monday’s encounter was free of the naked animosity of some of their previous encounters. The atmosphere of the short Oval Office photo-op was businesslike, and there were even a few smiles.
“It’s very good to welcome once again Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to the Oval Office,” Obama said with no obvious trace of irony after reporters were ushered into the Oval Office. “There’s no foreign leader who I’ve met with more frequently, and I think that’s a testimony to the extraordinary bond between the United States and Israel.”
Netanyahu, in return, repeatedly thanked Obama for his commitment to Israel and its security.
With just one year remaining in their official relationship, the pair sought common ground as they tried to put the ties between their governments on a more stable footing. And they managed– publicly, at least – to sketch out a formula on shared interests in Israeli security and the fast-deepening regional Middle East crisis that could head off future clashes.
A shared agenda
The two have both indicated they are willing to move past some of the issues that divide them and have some mutual agenda items for their final months working together.
Obama is keen to conclude a new 10-year U.S. and Israeli defense pact that would adorn his legacy as a balance to the years spent feuding with Netanyahu over his top second-term priority, the nuclear deal.
Netanyahu, for his part, is trying to prove to his domestic audience that he hasn’t burned bridges with the White House and the wider Democratic Party – that he can still be trusted to handle Israel’s most important diplomatic file, the relationship with the United States. He will speak to a progressive think tank as part of his trip to Washington, in addition to a conservative one.
And he would like to both benefit from the military aid soon to be on offer, as well as coordinate on implementation of the Iran deal to keep it as strict as possible.
Netanyahu views the deal as a mistake of historic proportions and did everything he could to derail it, including aligning himself with Republicans in an effort the White House saw as undue meddling in U.S. domestic politics.
But in a speech to the United Nations last month, he accepted that the deal is a fact and that the key now is successful implementation. And in the Oval Office, he didn’t bring up the issue of Iran’s nuclear status at all.
During the nine-minute photo spray, Netanyahu’s sober demeanor was a far cry from the pyrotechnical occasion in 2011 when he delivered what Obama aides saw as a patronizing lecture on the long history of persecution of the Jewish people as a way of voicing his opposition to Iran’s nuclear diplomacy.
On the other major issue that has cleaved divisions between the two men – the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – Obama, too, seems to have little appetite for argument.
After two failed attempts to broker a final settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, U.S. officials effectively signaled last week that the current political conditions mean that there is no chance of one before Obama leaves office.
Obama also offered strong backing to Israel in its latest crisis – following a spate of knife attacks on Israeli citizens by Palestinians amid fears that boiling frustration in Palestinian territories could ignite a new intifada, or uprising.
In return, the Israeli leader went out of his way to say that he had not given up hope for a final settlement with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution that includes recognition of the Jewish state by the Palestinians.
Such language is unlikely to result in any shifting of entrenched positions on the conflict, but it is the kind of thing that the administration likes to hear as proof that its efforts in the conflict have not been completely in vain – and that it can at least fulfill its new stated goal of keeping the hope of a two-state solution alive.
The White House doesn’t deny that the two men aren’t close, but it wants to hand a functional relationship onto Obama’s successor and appears to be keen to avoid the kind of blot in history an unrepaired relationship with Israel would represent.
“It doesn’t mean that they have agreed on every issue and it doesn’t mean that they are the best of friends,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest while the meeting was going on. “It does mean that they are able to work effectively together to advance the interests of the citizens of their countries, but also to advance the shared interest of our alliance.”
Still, the wounds from past clashes were just below the surface – even if the two men tried to minimize them.
Disagreement ‘no secret’
“It is no secret that the Prime Minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue,” said Obama, significantly downplaying the intensity of the showdown over Iran. “But we don’t have a disagreement on the need to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, and we don’t have a disagreement about the importance of us blunting destabilizing activities that Iran may be taking.”
Obama also could not help a note of exasperation from creeping into his voice as he noted that he had “repeatedly” said that the security of Israel is a central foreign policy priority. His remark hinted at frustration at accusations from his foes in Congress and in Jerusalem that he is anti-Israel.
Aides have repeatedly highlighted Obama’s role in providing funding for the Iron Dome’s anti-missile technology to Israel, which has deflected countless enemy rockets, and argue that he has presided over intense and unprecedented coordination between the two nations’ intelligence services.
In terms of character and ideology, and given the clashing political worldviews between the cautious, liberal, self-contained Obama and the hawkish, conservative, blunt-spoken Netanyahu, it’s no surprise they’ve had a rocky relationship.
Both leaders had a unique historic vision – which put them on direct collision course with the other. Obama saw his mission as president to end foreign wars and test whether diplomacy is possible with sworn U.S. enemies like Iran. Netanyahu has seen his purpose as ensuring the future of the Jewish state against an existential threat from Iran’s nuclear program.
Their clash has produced a series of ill-tempered moments – for instance, last year when an unnamed U.S. official referred to Netanyahu as a “chickens**t” in an Atlantic article.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, outraged the White House by appearing to side with Republican Mitt Romney during the President’s re-election campaign in 2012 and with his attempt to scuttle the Iran deal in a speech to Congress this year. During that trip, Obama made no attempt to meet the Prime Minister.
Last year, Netanyahu angered the White House by distancing himself from the pursuit of a two-state solution during his re-election campaign, and some Obama aides blamed the Prime Minister for appeasing right-wing elements of his coalition on settlement policy in a way that made breakthroughs with the Palestinians impossible.
But for now, and likely for the rest of their troubled common tenure, Obama and Netanyahu look like two people who are going to try to get along.
And both leaders can console themselves with the thought that their unhappy association has less than 15 months to run.
By January 2017, Netanyahu will be out of Obama’s hair as the President heads into retirement. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, should still be in power, barring an unforeseen political crisis back home, and looking ahead to a White House – whether under a Democrat like Hillary Clinton or any of the Republican candidates running for president – likely to be far more to his liking.