NEW YORK — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was trying to flatter US President Barack Obama when he noted his “terrific golf game” during their meeting here Wednesday. “And by the way,” the prime minister added, “I don’t play golf but right next to my home in Caesarea in Israel there’s a terrific golf course.”
What was meant to sound jovial and welcoming could have also been understood as a backhanded insult. Politico’s story on the meeting did not focus on military aid, unprecedented security cooperation or even the settlements but on Netanyahu’s awkward attempt to be friendly. “Netanyahu poked fun at President Barack Obama’s golf obsession,” the site reported.
Were Netanyahu and his aides not aware that Obama’s passion for golf is rarely cited by his admirers but usually only by his detractors, who more than his athletic proclivities seek to highlight his alleged aloof elitism and contempt for the simple man?
In December, Republican presidential hopeful and perennial Obama basher Donald Trump accused the president of playing more golf than Tiger Woods. “We don’t have time for this,” The Donald said. “We have to work.”
Just last month, Trump accused the president of not visiting flood victims in Louisiana for fear he could miss any golf games during his vacation in Massachusetts.
A senior diplomatic official on Wednesday night told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu was honestly trying to be friendly and hospitable. “The claim that the prime minister in any way intended to take a dig at the president is utterly preposterous and further shows how comments like these, made in earnest, get blown out of proportions and into tensions where they don’t exist.”
Obama, for his part, seemed unfazed when Netanyahu — who indicated that he’s too busy to play games — invited him to Israel’s fanciest golf course. “We’ll set up a tee time,” the president said lightly, perhaps slightly sarcastically, aware that everybody knows that teaching Netanyahu golf is about the last thing he wants to do in retirement.
Both the public and the private part of the meeting, held in midtown Manhattan’s fancy Palace hotel, were friendly and courteous, according to a senior official in Israel’s delegation.
Netanyahu and Obama are like an old couple that used to bicker a lot and, with the wisdom of age, have learned to live with each other, the official suggested. “We almost agree on everything.”
Even Iran, which was absent from the two leaders’ public statements but was discussed behind closed doors, no longer arouses the passionate exchanges it once did.
The only real bone of contention between the two leaders was Israel’s settlement policy. Obama, in private, expressed “profound concerns” over settlement construction, arguing that it endangers prospects for peace.
Netanyahu did not deny that he and Obama fundamentally disagree on this issue. In fact, he knows full well that virtually the entire international community disapproves of Israel’s building beyond the 1967 lines, and yet he remains utterly unperturbed, stubbornly rejecting any calls for a freeze — even of settlement expansions outside the major blocs.
There are several reasons for this. For one, he is subject to political pressure from his right-wing base and his nationalist coalition partner, the Jewish Home party. While Netanyahu survived one 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, at Obama’s behest, in 2009-2010, any move or even statement seen as critical of the settlement movement these days will cost him dearly in terms of political support.
Furthermore, Netanyahu believes that the world needs Israel — for its knowhow in fighting terrorism and its high-tech prowess. Therefore, even if the US and western Europe publicly condemn every housing unit built across the Green Line, in the end most countries care more about what Israeli has to offer than about where it builds apartments.
More importantly, the prime minister is counting on changing circumstances eventually leading to a shift in global attitudes.
For decades, he reasons, Arabists and other analysts insisted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the root of everything that’s wrong in the region, and that if it were only solved, the Middle East would instantly become heaven on earth. But the Arab Spring-cum-Islamic winter, the mass slaughter in Syria, and the turmoil in Libya, Yemen and beyond have disproved that theory once and for all, Netanyahu argues.
So too, Netanyahu believes, the “myth” of settlements as an obstacle to peace will evaporate over time.
The real impediment to peace, according to Netanyahu, is not a few thousand Jews living in the West Bank, but the Palestinians’ adamant refusal to drop the demand for a right of return for millions of refugee descendants to today’s Israel, and to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a state, in any borders.
How long does Netanyahu think it will it take until world leaders come to realize that he’s right, they’re wrong, and the settlements are not an obstruction to peace after all? That is unclear.
But while Obama says goodbye to the White House, and with it his power of influence on the world stage, Netanyahu intends to remain prime minister for a long time yet. Retirement, and golf, can wait.