The old frenemies sat in the Oval Office on Wednesday, their chair legs 18 inches apart, attempting some reasonable facsimile of personal chemistry. Maybe the 12th time would be the charm.
President Obama leaned back, elegantly cross-legged. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his tie askew, planted both feet on the ground and leaned toward Obama, as if he might leap up at any moment.
Obama called his counterpart “Bibi.” Netanyahu called Obama “Mr. President.”
In their 12th meeting, and their first since this summer’s war in Gaza strained U.S.-Israeli relations, the two men exchanged the requisite pleasantries for all of six minutes. Obama renewed the “unbreakable bond” between the two countries. Netanyahu thanked Obama for his “unflinching support” of Israel.
Then came the handshake. Firm and grim, it lasted 2.2 seconds, and the two seated men looked into each other’s eyes and pumped their arms without smiling for the cameras.
Reporters had been told the two leaders would not take questions, and understandably so. That would inevitably bring up unpleasant things.
Such as: Senior Israeli officials in July reportedly accusing Secretary of State John Kerry of “a strategic terrorist attack” against the Jewish state for his efforts to negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza.
Or: Netanyahu’s incendiary speech to the United Nations last week calling the Islamic State and Hamas “branches of the same poisonous tree.”
Instead, the leaders spoke privately, and then Obama went off to dine with Vice President Biden. The official White House schedule did not list the prime minister as a lunch guest.
Then, just two hours after Netanyahu departed, White House press secretary Josh Earnest issued a sharp denunciation of Israeli plans for a new housing project in East Jerusalem — drawing an equally pointed rejoinder from the Israelis
So, it was awkward — but not their worst. The Post’s Katie Zezima compiled a delightful anthology of past Bibi-Barry snubs and countersnubs, including the May 2011 encounter in which Netanyahu rejected as unrealistic a peace proposal the Obama administration had just floated. There was also the November 2011 hot-mike incident in which the French president called Netanyahu a “liar” and unbearable and Obama replied, “I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
Obama picked up that theme, in a more polite way, on Wednesday. “Obviously, he’s no stranger to the White House,” he said. “I think I’ve met with Bibi more than any world leader during my tenure as president.”
No stranger — but estranged.
The prime minister’s body language was that of a man suffering intestinal discomfort. As soon as the cameras went on for the brief “pool spray” (a pre-meeting photo op with a small group of journalists), Netanyahu uncrossed his legs and tugged at his lapels. He placed his left palm on his left leg and appeared to drum the fingers of his right hand on the chair. Netanyahu nodded as Obama extolled the U.S.-Israel relationship, and an “mmm” of agreement was audible when Obama said Americans “should be very proud of the contributions that we made to the Iron Dome program to protect the lives of Israelis.”
Though his spokesman would later chide Netanyahu over his settlement policy, Obama clearly had no appetite to mix it up with his Israeli counterpart with the cameras rolling.
In the Oval Office, Obama spoke delicately about making sure “Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes and schoolchildren in their schools from the possibility of rocket fire, but also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well.” That was as close as Obama got to a criticism, and he quickly moved to the safe terrain of calling on “Arab states and Muslim countries” to “isolate the cancer of violent extremism.” Obama lamented that Netanyahu had to “work so hard during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur,” using the gentile pronunciation “Yahm Kippur.”
After Obama’s three minutes, Netanyahu took his three, beginning with the de rigueur salute to “the continuous bond of friendship.” But then Netanyahu offered a politely worded warning to Obama not to go wobbly. “Iran seeks a deal that would lift the tough sanctions that you worked so hard to put in place and leave it as a threshold nuclear power, and I firmly hope that under your leadership that would not happen,” he said.
The leaders spoke privately for nearly two hours, longer than planned. Did the president and prime minister find some latent rapport? Or was it a particularly thorny argument? Netanyahu, in the White House driveway, ignored a question about whether reporters should “read anything into” the long session.
Guess we’ll have to wait for Meeting 13.