Jewish Journal


March 5, 2012

Do Obama and Netanyahu understand one another?



Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu meeting at the White House on March 5. (Photo: Reuters)

Five short comments on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting:


Following many of the pundits’ analysis of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting and of Obama’s AIPAC speech, one gets the impression that everything in this world of foreign policy is really about politics.

Obama wants to be nice to Israel because of the Jewish vote (election), and he opposes attack on Iran because of oil prices (election), and he wants to delay any decision until November (we all know what November brings), and he doesn’t fight much with Netanyahu over settlement activity so as not to anger voters (again, Jewish vote) and he still hopes diplomacy can work with Iran because his left-wing voters would not tolerate another US war in the Middle East, and so on and so forth.

This is not how things really work, and these aren’t the reasons for which Obama opposes an attack on Iran. Yes, the president is also a politician, and one has to be very naïve to assume that political considerations play no role in his thinking. However, for the president to oppose an Israeli attack is also quite logical and should not be surprising to anyone – even if this year were not an election year.

Israel is more nervous than Obama because A. Iran is more dangerous to Israel than to the US, and B. for Israel not to act soon means losing the ability to act (according to Defense Minister Barak). The US is more relaxed about Iran because A. Iran is less dangerous to the US, and B. the US can decide to act later (having the better equipped military). If fact, it would have been a surprise had the president not tried to persuade Israel that there’s still time. Presidents of the United States always want to preserve their freedom to maneuver, and this particular president sees no reason to commit now to something he may or may not want to do later.

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That Israel must remain “the master of its fate” is obvious. And that the prime minister has to say such thing is a sign that Israel will not commit to delay action against Iran - at least not publicly - is also quite obvious, and not at all surprising.

The bottom line is this: The meeting between Obama and Netanyahu is definitely important, but judging by their comments yesterday and today, not much has changed in recent weeks. Israel has to keep the threat of action alive, the US has to keep pushing for more diplomacy and sanctions, and keep reminding Israel that it is not alone, if it wants Israel to delay its decision on using military force and initiating war with Iran.

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute explains: “the two leaders are likely to strive for the golden mean between clarity (so they can avoid misunderstanding) and ambiguity (so they can preserve freedom of maneuver in the future) that sounds optimum in a seminar room but is difficult to achieve in the real world”.

Was it achieved by Obama and Netanyahu? The frustrating reality is that we don’t know, and maybe not even they really know the answer to this question.


What was Obama really saying at his AIPAC speech? My quick analysis from yesterday tried to give answer to this question. But right after writing, I skipped around a variety of news sites to compare the headlines and see what the spin the media was putting on his words. Take a look:

Washington Post: Obama urges Israel to pursue diplomatic strategy with Iran; NYTimes: Obama Tries to Reassure Israel and Warns of ‘Loose Talk’; WSJ: Obama Has Tough Words for Iran; USAToday: Obama shuns ‘loose talk’ about war with Iran; JPost: Obama: There’s still time for diplomacy on Iran; Haaretz: Obama: All options remain on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran; Times of Israel: Obama: US won’t hesitate to use force against Iran.

Do you see a pattern here? There are two options: Focusing on US-Israel gaps and focusing on Obama’s warning to Iran. We’ve got both. Namely, there was no agreed “theme” to this speech. It was a little bit of everything.


And one more comment related to media coverage on the Obama-Netanyahu-Iran issue. As important or “crucial” as it might have been, both in Israel and the US other topics seemed more important this week. For Americans, naturally, it is Super Tuesday, for Israelis is the Ashkenazi-Barak battle over the so-called Harpaz affair. Both issues might not be as important, but the media believes (with good reason) that they attract more readers.


The instinctive Israeli tendency to be satisfied whenever Palestinians are dissatisfied with President Obama – as they clearly were following his AIPAC speech – is somewhat childish. The Israeli-Palestinian relationship is not a zero sum game, when they lose we win. If Obama could make Palestinians happier without alienating Israelis it would have been better. Having said that, could Obama say anything of substance that would not result in the Palestinians complaining about the “one-sided” American approach? I doubt it.

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