The Feud

2 years ago ccwa 0

obama-looks-at-netanyahu-during-talks-at-oval-dataIt’s no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States President Barack Obama don’t always get along, or agree on most things. However, what has happened in the past two weeks has dramatically reshaped the two leaders’ relationship. A common narrative runs throughout all the accounts of the Bibi-in-Congress fiasco. It appears that after the Republicans routed the Democrats in the 2014 midterm elections, the Republican Congressional leadership started searching for a way to shake up the upcoming battle over Obama’s Iran negotiations. House Speaker John Boehner decided to invite Netanyahu, his ally in the struggle against an Iranian nuclear deal, to speak before a joint session of Congress.

Normally this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The United States Congress is an especially friendly place for Israeli interests, and a Republican Congress is particularly friendly towards Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party. However, in all the talks between Republican Congressional leaders and the Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, no one bothered to inform the President, the State Department, or anyone in Democratic Congressional leadership, for that matter, of the invite. The White House and the Congressional Democratic leadership were caught blindsided in what has been perceived as a political maneuver against the White House. Dermer, Netanyahu, and Boehner are now in damage control mode, defensively apologizing and blaming each other for the incident. Netanyahu has, intentionally or otherwise, run straight into the heart of a partisan political fight against the President, his party, and the vast majority of the American Jewish diaspora, who have twice shown strong electoral support for this President and his party.

This may have blown over more quickly if Netanyahu did not have such a history of acting in ways that have been perceived as disrespectful towards Israel’s most important ally. To be fair, poor relationships between U.S. officials and Netanyahu are nothing new. Many officials, from Bush Senior’s Secretary of State James Baker all the way to Bill and Hillary Clinton, have expressed their true feelings about Mr. Netanyahu since leaving office. Yet none of those relationships were as toxic as that between Obama and Netanyahu. This is largely attributable to the leaders’ personal backgrounds, which have sculpted their view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Much of the research into the vastly different worlds of Netanyahu and Barack Obama is embodied in Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, where he explains both leaders’ histories in depth. According to Beinart, Obama was generally removed from the issue of Israel through his early life. However, during his time at Harvard and in Chicago, Obama befriended many American Jews and rabbis, many of whom were associated with Peace Now, a left-leaning Israeli advocacy group. In this environment, Obama developed a largely positive relationship with Israel, but one that also included a critical lens into Israel’s occupation and treatment of Palestinians. Many of Obama’s Jewish mentors were influenced by Jewish participants in the American Civil Rights movement and saw no reason why those values could not easily translate into how Israel treats its Arab minority. As a result of these relationships, Obama developed a strong interest in a Jewish and democratic Israel, the type of Israel supported by Netanyahu’s current political opposition and organizations like J Street.

To simply say that Netanyahu’s origins were different would be an understatement. Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, was a contemporary of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement. Throughout the earliest years of the State of Israel, the movement was powerless and largely irrelevant. This changed after an anxious and exhausted state voted the first united right-wing front – the Likud – into power in 1977, knocking the state’s founding Labor Party out of power. Netanyahu, an activist in the Likud, slowly worked his way up. His surname gained prestige from the heroic acts of his brother Yonatan (the sole Israeli casualty in Operation Entebbe), the influence of his father, and the important connections he gained while studying in the U.S. He built close connections with Jewish diaspora organizations in the U.S., creating an American financial base for a future run for office. Ideologically, Netanyahu is in many ways a chip off the old block of his father, preserving the same old revisionist views that have characterized Israeli policy since Likud took the reins of power. While old Kibbutzniks, Israeli leftists, and civil rights activists influenced Barack Obama, the very forces of Israeli ultra-nationalism that Obama’s mentors despised influenced Netanyahu.

Simply looking at each of the leaders’ backgrounds helps explain the noxious relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, yet there is still more to the story. Obama’s relatively inexperienced hand was outplayed over and over again by Netanyahu, a skilled political manipulator. The failure of Obama’s initiative for a settlement freeze in 2009-10 (although a partial one did occur) combined with the sinking economy and Obama’s floundering poll numbers convinced Netanyahu that Obama wouldn’t be a problem. He decided he could wait Obama out. This may have been why Netanyahu practically endorsed and campaigned for Romney in 2012, getting himself in trouble with the administration and with critics at home.

To be fair, Obama didn’t help the situation either. In 2009, after Israel’s controversial election, Obama made it clear that he would strongly prefer Netanyahu’s chief political rival Tzipi Livni to become Prime Minister. He excluded Israel from his first Middle East visit and, during his 2013 trip to Israel, he went over the government’s head and delivered a speech to Israeli college students calling on them to work against the stated goals of Israel’s newly formed government.

Despite all of this, they did try to get along. Obama has provided just as much, if not more, diplomatic and military support to Israel as his predecessors. On his end, Netanyahu has praised the President and Secretary of State John Kerry many times, and has silenced rogue officials who insulted them.

Yet, none of that turned out to be enough to avoid this crisis. Netanyahu’s insistence on playing to his domestic base in virtually every policy decision, from settlement expansion to harsh diplomatic rhetoric to inflammatory statements toward international organizations, has clashed with Obama’s post-Bush foreign policy doctrine. Netanyahu has brought both leaders’ blood to a boil by making it clear that he does not believe in a two state solution. Going against both American and Israeli interests, he has opposed all bids towards the creation of a Palestinian state since Abbas refused to sign Kerry’s 2014 framework.

The U.S.-Israel relationship is at its lowest point since the first Bush administration, and Netanyahu has just taken another swing at the life of the alliance. If U.S.-Israel relations are politicized along partisan lines, the relationship could be treading dangerous waters, which while bad for both sides, is especially risky for Israel. For those who value U.S.-Israel relations and wish for a liberal democratic Jewish state of Israel, Netanyahu is a threat. It may be that improved U.S.-Israel relations depend on the results of Israel’s upcoming elections, and I bet we can guess who the White House isn’t rooting for.

A previous version of this article was published at


by Josh Freedman

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