Bibi and Barack

Personality conflicts between the American president and the Israeli prime minister don’t bode well for the US-Israel relationship.

Barack Obama has an Israel problem. Almost three years in, the US president still can’t decide whether he wants to pander to the Israeli prime minister or pressure him. The approach of the 2012 elections makes the former almost mandatory; the president’s reelection may make the latter possible.

Buckle your seat belts. Unless Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu find a way to cooperate on a big venture that makes both of them look good, and in a way that allows each to invest in the other, the US-Israel relationship may be in for a bumpy ride.

The president’s view of Israel is situated in two fundamental realities. The first is structural and is linked to the way Obama sees the world; the second is more situational and is driven by his view of Netanyahu and Israeli policies. Together they have created and sustained a deep level of frustration bordering on anger.

Unlike his two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn’t in love with the idea of Israel.

Intellectually he understands and supports the pro-Israeli trope – small democratic nation with dark past confronts huge existential threats – but it’s really a head thing.

Clinton and Bush were enamored emotionally with Israel’s story and the prime ministers who narrated it.

Clinton sat at the feet of Yitzhak Rabin – the authentic leader and hero in peace and war – as a student sits in thrall of a brilliant professor. (Some even said like a son to a father). “I had come to love him,” the former president wrote in his memoirs, ”as I had rarely loved another man.”

And George W. Bush, though often frustrated in the extreme with Ariel Sharon, loved his stories of biblical history and more contemporary war tales. Bush reacted – as he did on so many issues – from his gut, certainly when it came to Israel’s security. While flying with Sharon over Israel’s narrow waist, the then-governor said, “We have driveways in Texas longer than that.”

The tendency to look at Israel analytically instead of emotionally, and to view the conflict through a national-interest prism rather than some sort of moral filter, dovetails with Obama’s poisonous relationship with Netanyahu. Obama doesn't like him, doesn’t trust him and views him as a con man. The Israeli prime minister has frustrated and embarrassed Obama and gotten in the way of the president’s wildly exaggerated hopes for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he’s been pursuing with more enthusiasm than viable strategy since his inauguration. To make matters worse, when the president went after a settlements freeze, Netanyahu called his bluff and Obama backed down – a terrible humiliation.

In the end, the Barack-Bibi relationship is likely headed south because the trust and capacity to give each other the benefit of the doubt has long ago evaporated.


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