President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office last year. The two leaders have had a tension relationship, but there are a few openings for improvement. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
March 15, 2013

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He served as a Middle East analyst, adviser and negotiator for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state from 1980 to 2003.

When President Obama sits down this week with Benjamin Netanyahu during his trip to Israel, they’ll bring a lot more baggage to the meeting than their briefing books.

For almost 25 years as an analyst, adviser and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations, I observed the U.S.-Israel relationship up close. And it’s been clear from the beginning that Obama and Netanyahu were doomed to dysfunction. Netanyahu is preternaturally suspicious of America’s role in the peace process, and particularly of someone like Obama, who aspires to do big things. And Obama’s naive push for a settlement freeze and apparent lack of an emotional connection to Israel have contributed to the tension.

One presidential visit won’t forge a reconciliation. But increasing pressures to manage the Iranian nuclear issue, the peace process and Netanyahu’s need to remain relevant in his new government just might.

This odd couple’s ties are the most tenuous we’ve seen between the White House and Jerusalem. From the beginning, the Obama administration has prompted a batten-down-the-hatches mentality in Netanyahu’s circle — much the same way tough anti-settlement talk from President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker worried Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as peace envoy within two days of his first inauguration, his repeated calls for a settlement freeze and his outreach to the Arab and Muslim world in his 2009 Cairo speech convinced Netanyahu that Obama was going to press him hard. When I saw the prime minister in May 2010, he gave me the impression that he thought Obama wanted someone else in the job. That feeling was probably mutual.

Netanyahu has played a big part in creating the tension, too — embarrassing a very pro-Israel Vice President Biden with the announcement of new housing construction in east Jerusalem during Biden’s trip to Israel in 2010, lecturing Obama during a news conference while visiting Washington in 2011 and sending signals in 2012 that he would prefer to work with Mitt Romney as president.

Every serious and successful American mediator fights with the Israelis. It’s part of the job description. But the fights need to be productive and advance the peace process, not stall it. Sure, settlements are bad — they humiliate Palestinians, erode the chances for a two-state solution and pre-judge the borders of such an agreement. But unless Obama was prepared to pressure or punish Netanyahu if he didn’t stop expanding the settlements — something no Israeli prime minister, no matter how dovish, would do — pushing this issue was a key to an empty room. By making a settlement freeze the centerpiece of his approach to negotiations, Obama lost credibility with Israel and then with the Palestinians and Arabs when he backed down. Trying to bribe the Israelis with military hardware in 2010 if they would agree to a freeze made Obama look even worse.

Add to the president’s missteps the fact that Netanyahu trusts no one, certainly not Arabs and Americans who think they know his region better than he does. Netanyahu once told me that I should never forget that I lived in Chevy Chase, Md., not in his tough neighborhood. During his first incarnation as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, he even annoyed and distrusted Bill Clinton, a man who understood Netanyahu and cut him more than a few breaks.

Following two very pro-Israel presidents, Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama has seemed strangely disconnected. It’s hard to imagine the president reacting the way then-Gov. Bush did on that famous helicopter ride with Ariel Sharon. Flying over Israel’s narrow waist, Bush reportedly noted: “We’ve got driveways in Texas longer than this country is wide.”

Obama has seemed of a different generation. He was 6 at the time of the 1967 war and came of age with its results — the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — not with the vulnerable Israel that preceded it. To Obama, it seems that Israel isn’t so much a heroic underdog — a tiny country in a dangerous neighborhood — as a powerful nation that can afford to be magnanimous to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s we’ll-settle-the-land-if-we-darn-well-please attitude has brought out the worst in him. The first-term briefings Obama received from those who knew Netanyahu in his first go-round as prime minister, including Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Rodham Clinton, may have fed the perception that the Israeli prime minister can’t be trusted. The president’s reported comments that the right way to deal with Israel is to make sure there is daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions reflected this view.

Previously, the most dysfunctional relationship had been between George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir. During their first meeting, the prime minister told Bush that West Bank settlements wouldn’t be a problem; the president thought that meant construction would stop. When Shamir expanded them, Bush believed he had lied. But their relationship improved when the prime minister, in response to American requests, did not retaliate against Iraqi Scud missiles fired during the Gulf war and reluctantly agreed to participate in the U.S.-planned Madrid peace talks (even though I saw him fall asleep during the conference).

Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter also argued over settlements but were rescued by Anwar Sadat’s 1977 trip to Jerusalem, the Camp David accords the following year and the resulting Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

Israeli prime ministers and U.S. presidents don’t have to love one another. Clinton was an exception — he was in love with the idea of Israel and enthralled by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose decision to sign the Oslo accords with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn gave Clinton a huge achievement. Clinton’s deep sense of loss after Rabin’s 1995 assassination only heightened his emotional connection to Israel. What other president would write in his memoirs that he had loved Rabin as he had rarely loved another man?

What is required, though, is respect, understanding and reciprocity that create trust, or at least the ability to work together on things that are important to both countries. And despite the dysfunction at the top, the institutional relationship between the United States and Israel is probably closer than ever, through security cooperation, intelligence-sharing and joint military exercises.

There isn’t likely to be a dramatic transformation in Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship, and certainly not on this visit. Any amelioration will come if and when the two countries find common ground on dealing with the Palestinians and on keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu — much weakened in the new coalition government by two upstarts who have shifted the agenda from security to social and economic issues — may want to keep foreign policy prominent. And for this, he needs Obama.

While he and Obama have differed over whether a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is wise, there is still a good chance for coordination. The Israelis don’t want to strike unilaterally. Netanyahu is hoping that either through a credible deal on restricting Iran’s uranium enrichment or through U.S. military action, the Iranian nuclear program will be constrained, if not undermined, and Israel won’t have to act alone.

On the Palestinians, past experience suggests that common ground will remain elusive. But the new Israeli government isn’t looking for a confrontation with the United States. A substantial number of seats in parliament are occupied by those who either support a credible process with the Palestinians or would acquiesce in one. And because the chances for a breakthrough are slim, there won’t be much U.S. pressure. So Netanyahu won’t get a lot of mileage from the old trope of Bibi, King of Israel, standing up to Obama.

Similarly, Obama isn’t looking for a fight right now. He is already a historic president; he wants to be a great one, too. And that means taking his biggest risks on a domestic agenda, not a foreign one. (He has acknowledged that the chances for Mideast peace are bleak.) His domestic legacy requires working with Republicans or taking the House back in 2014. So he’ll want to avoid fights with Israel that will stir up Republicans and make Democrats nervous.

Most important, Obama and Netanyahu may realize that without better cooperation, they will have zero chance of managing the two problems — the Iranian nuclear issue and the Palestinians — that threaten their individual and collective interests. If Netanyahu wants to be remembered as more than a do-nothing prime minister, and if Obama wants to avoid being the American president on whose watch Iran gets the bomb and the two-state solution expires, they’ll have to cooperate. As leaders, their time is running out.

I’m betting they make the effort to work together. But if not, they can always go back to the alternative. They certainly have had plenty of practice.

aaron.miller@wilsoncenter.org

Read more from Outlook:

What Bill Clinton can teach Obama about the Israelis

Five myths about Chuck Hagel

How to break a Middle East stalemate

Five myths about Obama’s foreign policy

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