A new Bibi-Barack era? No

Jokes, warm rhetoric and good body language shouldn’t obscure that the differences between Obama and Netanyahu are as stark as ever on Iran and the Palestinians

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference, March 20, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The repartee has been truly slick at times. Take this one-two at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s remarks during his joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday night.

Obama: “It was wonderful to see (your two sons)… I did inform the prime minister that they are very good-looking young men who clearly got their looks from their mother.”

Netanyahu, instantly: “Well, I can say the same of your daughters.”

Obama: “This is true. Our goal is to improve our gene pool by marrying women who are better than we are.”

A stand-up comic would have been proud of Netanyahu’s rapid response. And Obama’s follow-up was nicely worded to put the two leaders in the same category — both married to better halves.

They’ve joked together, stripped out of their suit jackets together, walked arm-in-arm, called each other the familiar “Barack” and “Bibi.”

They’ve also sought to assert that they largely see eye-to-eye on the key issues they’ve been discussing: Iran, Syria, the Palestinians.

But, Syria possibly excepted, they just don’t. And if you look closely at their comments so far on this first Obama presidential visit, including at that so-friendly press conference, that’s unmistakable.

On Iran, Obama may have legitimately asserted that “there is not a lot of light, a lot of daylight, between our countries’ assessments in terms of where Iran is right now.” But that’s not exactly the point. The real issue is not the assessments of Iran’s progress, but whether there’s any light between the two countries’ approaches to grappling with the consequences of those shared assessments — to stopping Iran.

And on that, the gulf was glaring. Obama said he was here “to understand how the Israeli government and the prime minister is approaching this [Iranian] problem to make sure that there are no misunderstandings there.” Misunderstandings, presumably not. Differences, absolutely.

Obama made clear, again, that “we prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there’s still time to do so,” that he’ll stop Iran one way or another if that fails, and that he has Israel’s back. As in: Don’t worry, and certainly don’t fire. I’ll take care of Iran. You don’t need to. I can stop them for the long-term. You can’t.

But Netanyahu’s response was a far from dutiful okay, yes, all yours. “You have made it clear that you are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I appreciate your forthright position on this point,” was all he could manage. “Appreciate.” An interesting, carefully selected choice of word, invoked in Netanyahu’s prepared remarks, rather than off-the-cuff in answer to a question. Shimon Peres said earlier Wednesday that he trusts Obama to handle Iran. Netanyahu, most notably, didn’t. Because he doesn’t.

Instead, Netanyahu highlighted, at the airport and again at the press conference, his gratitude to Obama for restating Israel’s right to defend itself as it sees fit — with the implication that Israel might indeed have to defend itself as it sees fit.

Netanyahu reiterated in Jerusalem his belief that “in order to stop Iran’s nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and sanctions must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action.” In his view, Obama keeps on failing to make that “clear and credible threat.” And Iran therefore merrily continues its enrichment of uranium — shortening the period it would need to break out to the bomb. So, with all due respect to the president, it might yet fall to Israel to intervene, no matter how insistent and friendly those assurances from the US. “I know that you appreciate that Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends,” he told Obama, in precisely the same language he’s been using for more than a year.

No daylight? Don’t believe it.

Similarly, on the Palestinian front, there’s clearly been no reconciling of the two leaders’ fundamentally divergent mindsets. Netanyahu proved willing to declare his support for “two states for two peoples,” but his misgivings about Mahmoud Abbas have not been alleviated, and he remains convinced that the Palestinian leadership is neither willing nor able to agree to a permanent accord on terms Israel can live with.

Again, while Peres flatly declared Abbas a partner, Netanyahu — who has called the PA president that in the past, at the State Department in September 2010 — notably refrained from doing likewise.

Obama, by contrast, thinks the Palestinians deserve and are more than ready for a state — “an independent and sovereign state” to end the indignities of occupation, he made clear in his press conference with Abbas — and that this would benefit Israel. In a move toward Netanyahu’s position, he said in Ramallah that preconditions mustn’t be allowed to prevent progress. In complete contrast to Netanyahu’s assessment of what’s possible, he spoke of the path to a viable “broad-based agreement.”

He considers Israel’s settlement activity a counterproductive “challenge” to be overcome. It’s not “appropriate” or “constructive,” he said in Ramallah.

“Israel has a profound interest in a strong and effective Palestinian Authority,” Obama also asserted in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu doesn’t see things that way. He’s just put together a coalition with a strong pro-settlement component, and chosen to place strong settlement activists in key positions — at the Housing Ministry, the Knesset Finance Committee, even the Foreign Ministry.

He’s also the prime minister who has intermittently withheld tax revenues from the PA — undermining its financial well-being — and declaredly punished Abbas by threatening new building in the West Bank E1 corridor between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim after the PA head played his UN General Assembly card last November.

On the Palestinian issue, Obama said in Jerusalem that he’d come here “to spend some time listening before I talked — which my mother always taught me was a good idea.” He added that he’d consider his visit a success if, “when I go back on Friday, I’m able to say to myself I have a better understanding of what the constraints are, what the interests of the various parties are, and how the United States can play a constructive role in bringing about a lasting peace and two states living side by side in peace and security.”

As in, I’m not going to let things fester. I believe Israel and the Palestinians both need to move forward. And my top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, will be getting to work on precisely that.

Conflicting approaches on Iran, conflicting assessments on the Palestinians. That’s the unwavering substance beneath the smiles.

Obama is genuinely engaged on a goodwill trip; it’s truly a mission of solidarity with Israel. But he still thinks the prime minister of this vibrant, innovative, admirable Israel is wrong-headed and inclined to follow counter-productive policies. And Netanyahu still thinks this charismatic, quick-witted leader of Israel’s essential ally doesn’t get our region, hasn’t internalized its ruthlessness.

And that’s going to severely test the impression of friendship and partnership the two leaders have worked so hard, and with no little success, to project during this visit.

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