There were smiles and handshakes and plenty of “thank you”s as Barack Obama hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Wednesday, for what may well be his last time as US president.
Clearly, both men wanted to publicly end what have been years of roller coaster personal relations on a relative high.
Nonetheless, some of the differences peeked through — on issues trivial and more substantial. As so often with these two leaders, their best effort to showcase warmth and empathy were only partially successful, and even their brief exchanges underlined some of the frustrations each has always felt with the other.
Netanyahu, seeking to underline the familiarity of their relationship, referred to the president at one point as Barack: “I want you to know, Barack, that you’ll always be a welcome guest in Israel,” he said.
Obama, who did make the effort to call Netanyahu by the affectionate nickname “Bibi” several times when he visited Israel in 2013, did not reciprocate this time, however.
Still, he did offer to set a “tee time” to play golf with Netanyahu in Caesarea, after the PM had highlighted the president’s “terrific” golf skills. Unfortunately for would-be spectators, Netanyahu made clear that he doesn’t play golf.
The ‘candid’ PM, and the ‘giant’ Peres
Rather than invoking first names, Obama hinted at the tensions that have often afflicted their relationship when he declared, “One thing I can say about Prime Minister Netanyahu is he has always been candid with us, and his team has cooperated very effectively with ours. We very much appreciate it.”
Candid? Hardly the warmest of praise.
Obama reserved more effusive descriptions for Israel and its people, promising to “visit Israel often, because it is a beautiful country with beautiful people” and to bring his wife and daughters.
And he saved his greatest praise for the man Netanyahu defeated in the 1996 elections, Shimon Peres. Sending wishes for Peres’s “speedy recovery” after his stroke last week, Obama called the ex-PM and ex-president “a giant in the history of Israel,” no less. It is beyond unlikely that he would ever refer to Netanyahu in such terms.
For all that this was the upbeat public farewell, Obama was emphatic in raising the aspect of Netanyahu policy over which they have always clashed. A day after he said at the UN that “Israel must recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land,” the president returned to the theme — both in his brief public remarks, and again, we subsequently learned, in their private talks. “We do have concerns around settlement activity,” said Obama as the cameras clicked. “And our hope is that we can continue to be an effective partner with Israel in finding a path to peace.”
That latter sentence, as ever, underlined Obama’s conviction that Netanyahu is acting against Israel’s own interests by expanding the Jewish presence in the West Bank, complicating the prospect of a withdrawal, and reducing the capacity of the United States to broker a viable agreement.
Netanyahu’s declaration “that I and the people of Israel will never give up” on the effort to forge a “durable peace,” however heartfelt, is simply not persuasive to Obama, given his conviction that every single new home built for Jews over the pre-1967 line constitutes a blow to that aspiration.
While the Palestinian issue featured prominently in Obama’s remarks, the other major area of their disagreement — Iran, and the nuclear deal that Obama so championed — was conspicuous by its absence from their public comments. (Word is that the issue was raised in their private talks.) Perhaps the two men decided this was one subject where no amount of finesse could cover over their differences.
After all, their bitterly opposed attitudes to the deal continue to resonate. It was only two months ago that Obama declared that the “Israeli military and security community” now sees the year-old accord as “a game-changer.” The president meant “game-changer” in a positive sense. Israel’s Defense Ministry rushed to make plain that is sees a game-changer all right, but in the most negative sense, invoking the Allies 1938 Munich Agreement with the Nazis by comparison.
The basics restated
Differences aside, Netanyahu and Obama did credibly reaffirm the robust fundamentals of Israel-American ties: the security and intelligence partnerships; America’s military aid for a strong Jewish state as serving American as well as Israeli interests; the shared values and aspirations. Obama has indeed seen himself as a dependable protector of Israel, and Netanyahu paid personal tribute to his role in ensuring Israel’s well-being.
Where he and Netanyahu have always parted ways has been in their very different assessments of the opportunities for peacemaking by this firmly US-backed Israel, the risks involved, and the appropriate paths to follow. Where Obama just cannot get past those settlements, Netanyahu keeps trying to underline the dangers of “unremitting fanaticism.” It’s a recipe for mutual friction, and always has been.
Not quite over yet
There was no hint of bitterness when Obama remarked that while he is “only going to be president for another few months,” Netanyahu will be prime minister for “quite a bit longer.” And only a cynic would have detected a hint of pleasure from Netanyahu in his invitation to the soon-to-be ex-president to go play golf in Caesarea.
There are those who think we will yet see a sting in the tail — that Obama might back a UN Security Council resolution on Palestine in the final weeks before he hands over power, or endorse a French initiative, or unveil a detailed peace plan, or publish past understandings as a blueprint for the future.
Obama-Netanyahu won’t be over till it’s over, of course, but unleashing a dramatic new gambit at the very end of a two-term presidency would see Obama asked pointedly why he had left it all so ineffectually late. And it is probably worth looking at the close of his public remarks, as a possible guide to his state of mind. He said that he hoped to now hear from Netanyahu “how Israel sees the next few years, what the opportunities are and what the challenges are, in order to assure that we keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors, and a Palestinian homeland that meets the aspirations of their people.” (Interesting choice of that Balfour Declaration-echoing word “homeland.”)
Obama was seeking assurances from Netanyahu, in other words, that the door to a two-state solution would not be gradually closed in the coming years. Not the formulation, one might reasonably conclude, of a departing president seriously contemplating one last, drastic, bridge-burning — and almost certainly doomed — bid to try and impose a solution.