Netanyahu had not declared his support for a two-state solution. Unsure what reception he would receive, he found out quickly when the leaders met May 18 at the White House.
“Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office, Netanyahu by his side.
Netanyahu was stunned by the encounter, according to Israelis, Americans and Palestinians who were later briefed on the meeting. The next day, he headed to Capitol Hill for a talk with Jewish members of Congress, a group that gathered a couple of times a year.
It was clear to some present, as they recounted the meeting, that Netanyahu was looking for support to take on Obama over his demand for a settlement freeze.
“What he received was a distinct surprise to him, which was unified support from many longtime friends of Israel for the president’s policy,” said former congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who attended the meeting after serving as a liaison between Obama and Jewish voters during the campaign. “He was clearly taken aback.”
Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu was complicated by more than their politics. As with many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it involved a history that Obama had little to do with.
Netanyahu believed that some of Obama’s Middle East advisers carried what one Israeli diplomat described as a “Clinton-era grudge,” a bias against Netanyahu that would transfer to Obama.
Bill Clinton and Netanyahu clashed repeatedly over the general faltering of the 1993 Oslo Accords that had brought a measure of Palestinian self-government in the territories.
But they found ways to compromise, and Netanyahu, fearing a politically costly falling-out with a U.S. president, agreed to some Palestinian concessions. His decision probably cost him the 1999 election.
Hillary Clinton, Mitchell, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Dennis B. Ross — a Middle East adviser to Obama during the 2008 campaign who joined his administration as a State Department adviser on Iran — were veterans of the Clinton years.
According to former administration officials and outside advisers briefed on some White House meetings, Emanuel, in particular, thought Netanyahu could be pressured to make concessions, just as he had in the 1990s.
Emanuel’s father was born in Jerusalem and, before the state of Israel was created in 1948, belonged to the Irgun, a Jewish paramilitary movement classified as a terrorist group by the British forces it fought. Emanuel served as a civilian volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
He often told others that he believed his view was consistent with that of the Israeli political center, which had traditionally disliked the settlement project because of its cost and security risks and the moral questions it raised about the occupation of Palestinian land. He also had an outsize say in the Obama administration about Israel policy.