Obama was coming off the announcement that, if elected president, he would talk without preconditions to Iran’s government, then led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once was quoted as calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” Although that was a mistranslation of what Ahmadinejad actually said, his evident hostility unnerved Israel, as did apprehension that Obama would be significantly more sympathetic to Palestinian interests than either his opponent John McCain or President George W. Bush.
The most tense and closely watched meeting was still ahead — with Benjamin Netanyahu, then the opposition leader of the rightist Likud party. Netanyahu was leading Israeli opinion polls. Many correctly expected him to soon begin his second tenure as prime minister. And he and Obama harbored very different worldviews. Still, despite the fact that Netanyahu “clearly preferred a McCain victory,” according to author Thomas G. Mitchell, the meeting seemed to indicate common ground on Iran.
“The main focal point of our discussions was the need to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told reporters that day. Obama, Netanyahu stated, “would never seek in any way to compromise Israel’s security, and this would be sacrosanct in his approach to political negotiations.”
But a good relationship between the two men never developed. And today, following years of frostiness, awkwardness and downright hostility, it is worse than ever. Netanyahu’s impending speech before Congress, at the invitation of a Republican speaker who spent the past six years opposing everything Obama proposed, has ushered in a new era of nastiness. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Netanyahu was “wrong,” and national security adviser Susan E. Rice criticized Netanyahu’s “partisanship” as “destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”
“This is clearly the most dysfunctional relationship between an American and Israeli leader,” Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and a former U.S. negotiator and adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations, told The Washington Post. What’s more, he said, “the durability is troubling.”
What he means by “durability” is that it’s always been this way. The mutual disdain between Netanyahu and Obama goes way back, and the animosity apparent today has been years in the making.
There’s no shortage of examples: that time Netanyahu lectured Obama on Israeli history. That time Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy chuckled over how much they didn’t like Netanyahu. The time, in 2010, when Vice President Biden was blindsided on a trip to Israel by an Interior Ministry announcement of new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem. And who can forget when senior Obama officials reportedly called Netanyahu “chickens–t” and “Aspergery”?
The dislike appears personal, yes, but there’s reason to believe it goes beyond the visceral. The two have an intellectual suspicion of one another, wrote Peter Beinart, who in 2012 set out the clearest analysis of the fraught relationship in the book “The Crisis of Zionism.”
“Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t trust Barack Obama, and probably never will,” Beinart wrote. “The reason is simple: Obama reminds Netanyahu of what Netanyahu doesn’t like about Jews … their belief that they carried a moral message to the world.”
Beinart argued Obama understands Israel through the lens of liberalism, while Netanyahu understands it through the prism of security and strength. “Obama got his view on Israel from liberal Jews back in Chicago,” wrote Thomas Mitchell in “Likud Leaders,” and that effect on his thinking has been apparent for years. One of those Jews, Beinart noted, was David Axelrod, who, “like many of Obama’s early Jewish supporters, put the ‘progressive social justice tradition’ at the core of his Jewish identity, and in his view, ‘Obama was very much a part of that and was very much a product of it.’ ”
While Obama was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, for example, he criticized Israel’s West Bank security barrier, which the Republican Jewish Coalition later seized upon, according to JTA. Writing in “The Crisis of Zionism,” Beinart called Obama’s criticism “remarkable,” given that 361 members of the House that same year had passed a resolution in support of the barrier.
Even Obama’s reading habits were suspect to some Israel supporters. In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in May 2008, Obama spoke of the book “The Yellow Wind,” which he read when it first came out in 1988. Written by novelist David Grossman, one of Israel’s most prominent doves, the work offers a searing indictment of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Its impact on Obama had been such that, even decades later, he still recalled it.
“It is difficult to read ‘The Yellow Wind’ without being profoundly disturbed by its portrait of Palestinian life under Israeli rule,” Beinart remarked. “That Obama read it, along with the novels of another famed Israeli dove, Amos Oz, lends further credence to Arnold Wolf’s claim that his pre-presidential years, Obama ‘was on the line of Peace Now.’ ”
Obama’s opinions on Israel have long contrasted with the militant view adopted by Netanyahu’s Likud, a point he made clear during the 2008 campaign, which made some pro-Israel hawks nervous. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re opposed to Israel, that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel,” Obama said.
These statements weren’t lost on the Israeli public, and in a 2010 Jerusalem Post poll, only 9 percent of respondents said Obama’s administration was pro-Israel. Nearly one-half called it pro-Palestinian. Roughly three-fourths of Israelis who considered themselves right-wing — like Netanyahu — said Obama’s worldview was pro-Palestinian.
Now the differences between Netanyahu and Obama — on matters from settlements to modern Zionism — have come to a crossroads, a showdown set for next week when analysts say all of that building disdain between the men may finally come to a head. It will be a “tense political drama of the kind that House of Cards writers can only dream about,” said Haaretz.