WASHINGTON — In the dark days of the Cold War, Sovietologists would gather in Washington cubicles and stare at pictures of seating arrangements of Politburo members in an attempt to analyze who was up and who was down — and what faction within the fractured Communist leadership had the upper hand.
Non-verbal cues have undoubtedly remained a central facet of political and diplomatic drama — and there are perhaps few encounters that get Washington body-watchers more excited than a meet-up between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Commentaries on previous meetings — where the press is allowed into the room for a few brief pictures and a shouted question or two — have frequently highlighted seat positioning, glances and glares, and discomforted shifts.
Body-language experts have analyzed press photos taken as early as 2010 — long before the tussle over the Iran nuclear deal this year — and drawn the conclusion that the two simply don’t like each other, an analysis that is now considered as obvious in Washington as stating that the Lincoln Memorial exists.
But on Monday, the two media-savvy leaders went out of their way — both in words and in body language — to convey a key message, at least in front of cameras before their Oval Office meeting.
Whatever was said between the two once they got behind the closed doors of the presidential office, one thing is clear: This closely watched meeting marked a strategic decision by both parties to convey a public impression of détente — not merely business as usual, but a cordiality of shared interests and concerns.
It reflected two leaders who clearly understood that every gesture, every facial expression and foot position was under close observation, and were carefully planning their moves — physical and rhetorical — to stay on-point.
Each one explicitly addressed a bête noir of the fraught relationship between the two leaders. Obama acknowledged that the two had tussled over the nuclear deal signed in July with Iran, but described it as “a strong disagreement on this narrow issue” and emphasized that the two share the same goal — of preventing Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu reasserted his commitment to “two states for two peoples,” a commitment the Obama administration called into question after a widely publicized preelection comment that pointed to the contrary by the prime minister in March.
Days after administration officials said that they did not expect a comprehensive peace agreement in the waning months of Obama’s presidency, Obama stressed that he hoped that work would soon resume toward an agreement, and Netanyahu said that Israel “will never give up hope for peace.”
There was even a call-and-response element to the parity, with Obama asserting that Israel’s security is a “top priority” and Netanyahu stating that “Israel remains determined to protect itself.”
Obama hit another key point when he announced that he “condemn[s] in the strongest terms Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens” and said that he would “discuss with the prime minister his thoughts on how we can lower the temperature between Israelis and Palestinians.”
And there was the body language. The two shook hands not once, but twice, a gesture that was immediately noted — and tweeted — by watching reporters, eager for analytical traction taking the temperature of the top tier meet-up. Netanyahu nodded as Obama spoke, turning physically toward the president as he began to discuss ties. Obama did the same, leaning physically toward Netanyahu as the prime minister took his turn speaking before the cameras.
There were mixed signs in the days leading to the meeting — for weeks, Israeli and US officials have been shuttling back and forth, highlighting a narrative of reinvigorated ties between the two states. But in recent days, it appeared that the indignation by US administration officials over comments made on Facebook by Netanyahu’s recent pick for media adviser, Ran Baratz, might overshadow attempts at making nice.
Vice President Joe Biden — who is also scheduled to meet with Netanyahu during his visit — excoriated Baratz’s comments about Obama (anti-Semitic, according to Baratz) and Secretary of State John Kerry (childishly naive) during a Saturday night speech, suggesting that the administration was not prepared to completely sweep the comments under the carpet.
But on Monday morning, that critical tone was notably absent from public view. Behind closed doors, the two continued to meet into Monday afternoon — and if previous meetings are any indication, the content of those talks will quickly work its way out and into the public domain.
But the official public message, to both countries, is that the hatchet is buried — for now.