March 2, 2012
A short history of when Barack met Bibi
Next week they’ll be meeting again - President of the United States Barack Obama and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu. This being their ninth meeting since Obama took office, these two can now be considered old friends. “Friends” in the diplomatic sense of course, not real friends. Obama doesn’t seem to like Netanyahu, and Netanyahu doesn’t seem to like Obama. Both would prefer to have someone else as their counterpart, but both have reluctantly gotten used to the idea that they have many more such meetings in their futures.
Earlier in his term, Obama entertained the idea of nudging Netanyahu out (or nudging Israelis to throw Netanyahu out of office), but now realizes that the Prime Minister isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even more recently, Netanyahu was hoping to outlive Obama in office and have him replaced by one of his GOP rivals, but now - like the rest of the world - is beginning to think that there’s a good chance Obama will be a two-term president after all.
That is really the only area in which the clocks seem to be finally synchronized - both can easily envision five more years for Obama, five more for Netanyahu. In all other matters, though, the two leaders are still struggling to find common purpose - but even more than purpose, they are struggling to have the same goals in mind at the same time.
As far as Netanyahu is concerned, most of the previous meetings he has had with Obama have been a waste of time, with the two leaders talking about the wrong things.
In their first meeting, Obama was still hoping to “engage” Iran: “We are engaged in a process to reach out to Iran and persuade them that it is not in their interest to pursue a nuclear weapon,” the President had said after the May 2009 meeting. Netanyahu thought Obama was naïve; Obama thought he was going to rewrite the rules of international relations. Netanyahu wanted more action on the Iran front, Obama wanted more action on the peace front – and the president was the one winning the battle to set priorities.
Thus, their second meeting (Sept. 2009) was the first out of many that were mostly dedicated to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Obama, meeting Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York, urged the sides to go back to talks. By their third meeting, two months later, Obama had started to give Netanyahu the cold shoulder. No pomp, no press, late scheduling of the rendezvous. By March 2010 the atmosphere was not much better, with no joint statement and no agreement. Later that year (July 2010), Obama was still dedicating his efforts to renewing the peace process (it should be noted that he didn’t have much success).
May 2011 was disastrous. Obama ambushed Netanyahu with a statement invoking the 1967 borders; Netanyahu retaliated immediately after their meeting, lecturing the president on his own turf on the meaning of “indefensible” borders. Four months later, Obama was still invested in Israel-Palestine policy, but this time making statements that Netanyahu could not complain about.
So, the next week’s meeting will be the first in which the attention will be given to the true topic: the threat of Iran. But yet again, the leaders seem unable to synchronize their political clocks. If on Palestine, Obama was in a hurry that Netanyahu did not want to accommodate, on Iran the tables have been turned – Netanyahu is in a hurry and the President wants more time.
While talk of Israel attacking Iran soon, and constant speculation about American pressure to prevent such attack, is more hype than substance, differences can not be discounted. But there’s one huge difference between the two-year scuffle over Palestine and the current debate on countering Iran’s nuclear program.
On Palestine, surprising one’s ally was annoying and disruptive but not deadly. The Obama team was rightly outraged when Israel announced new West Bank construction during a Vice Presidential visit. Israel in turn had cause to be irritated by the 1967 speech – whether it was real shift in American policy or merely a somewhat more detailed pronunciation of traditional US policies, it was a deliberate attempt on the part of Obama to teach Netanyahu a lesson.
Iran is a different story. Iran is where surprises can have far more serious fallout than mere exasperation. Hence the constant stream of American officials to Israel and the frequent visits by Israeli leaders to Washington, and hence a subtle change in tone both from Obama and Netanyahu.
Unenthusiastic as they may be about one another, frustrated as they may be with the prospect of many more such meetings, irritated as they may be by previous disagreements – these two gentlemen now have to synchronize their watches, or at least show the other the true ticking clock that each sees.