08 March '16..
It didn’t last long. The much-ballyhooed rapprochement between the Obama administration and the Israeli government in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal is apparently over before it started. When, after some back and forth about a possible meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama later this month in Washington during the annual AIPAC conference, the Israeli decided to pass on the trip, the administration didn’t take it lying down. As they have at every possible opportunity over the last seven years, they have inflated a minor disagreement into a major controversy. The White House leaked to the press that Netanyahu had snubbed the president after he was invited to meet with him. The Israelis have a different story. But the bottom line is that once again the U.S. is alleging that Netanyahu has insulted the president.
Dissension between the Jewish state and its sole superpower ally is never good for either party but especially for the Israelis, who find themselves increasingly isolated on the international stage. Thus, Netanyahu is being criticized at home for needlessly antagonizing the Americans. Some are terming this an unprecedented act of insolence on Netanyahu’s part because, if the White House story is to be believed, this is the first time an Israeli prime minister has refused to meet with an American president when invited.
But all the huffing and puffing about the alleged insult rings false. It may be that the Israelis mishandled their end of the negotiations over a possible meeting of the two leaders. But the only reason why this is now a matter of public debate is that the Obama administration wanted to take a shot at the Israelis.
The details about the talks about a talk are somewhat murky but up until this week the spin coming out of Jerusalem was that Netanyahu wouldn’t go to Washington unless he was sure he would be welcomed at the White House. An unnamed aide to Obama says the administration made the president available to meet Netanyahu just before he was about to head to Cuba for a state visit. But by that time, the Israelis had decided the whole thing was a bad idea and bagged the visit. Yet rather than just accept that the meeting wouldn’t happen, the White House made a calculated decision to leak the story that the president had been snubbed. The Israelis have responded by saying they never committed to come to Washington and that there was no invitation to spurn.
Who is right? The better question is who cares?
If these were two governments that hadn’t been at odds with each other for years, none of this would have come out, and even a minor scheduling disagreement wouldn’t be hyped as an insult. Moreover, the history of alleged Netanyahu insults to Obama is a checkered one and particularly relevant this week as Vice President Biden makes a stop in Jerusalem.
In 2010, the Americans decided to use the announcement of a housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem while Biden was visiting to pick a fight with the Israelis. Netanyahu was skewered in public by the administration. He even received a lengthy lecture on the phone from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about how awful it was for Jews to be building homes in Jerusalem and the insolence of the Israelis in not suppressing such plans in honor of Biden passing through the city.
Of course, the insult was a manufactured incident that served to demonstrate to the Arab and Muslim world that the Obama administration considered new Jewish homes in Israel’s capital to be just as “illegal” as anything going on in the most remote hilltop settlement in the West Bank. But rather than damage Netanyahu as the White House hoped, the incident merely solidified domestic support for the prime minister who has been re-elected twice since then.
The next big “insult” was Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from then House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on the Iran nuclear deal in March 2015. The White House was furious that Netanyahu had the temerity to publicly oppose their appeasement of the Iranian regime and an agreement that, at best, merely postponed the prospect of an Iranian weapon rather than ending their nuclear program as President Obama had promised to do when running for re-election in 2012.
Giving the speech was a mistake since it allowed the White House to make Netanyahu the focus of controversy rather than their own indefensible decision to abandon principle in pursuit of détente with Iran. But the talk of Israeli violation of protocol was entirely false since the administration was not surprised by the announcement. The only real insult handed out during the controversy was Obama’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he was in Washington.
As for the current insult, this is another piece of inside politics rather than a genuine dispute.
It’s true that the official Israeli excuse sounds weak. Netanyahu’s supposed worry about not wanting to meet with any of the presidential candidates who will be in Washington for AIPAC doesn’t ring entirely true. But having been severely criticized for meeting with Mitt Romney, when the 2012 GOP nominee visited Israel, Netanyahu may have learned his lesson. Moreover, he may be extremely wary of having to either accept or turn down a request for a meeting from Donald Trump. That’s a minefield that he doesn’t need to stroll through.
There are other theories about why the Israelis decided to pass on a meeting. One involves the current negotiations for a memorandum of understanding about American military aid to Israel. Some theorize that rather than accept the current U.S. offer — something that he would be under great pressure to do if he met with the president — Netanyahu may have decided to wait until next year and hope to get a better deal with Obama’s successor. Given the likelihood that any of the possible successors (with the exception of Bernie Sanders or perhaps Trump) will be more accommodating to Israel than Obama, that may be the wisest course of action.
But the best reason for Netanyahu to pass on a meeting with Obama is simpler. He and his country have very little to gain from more interactions with the president. After more than seven years of ginned up fights, betrayals (Iran), aid cutoffs (such as the choking off of ammunition resupply during the 2014 Gaza war) and pressure about the peace process (Obama’s 2011 decision to try to force the Israelis to accept the 1967 lines as the basis for future negotiations), Netanyahu has had enough.
Given the hostility between the two men, a meeting won’t forestall the danger of a U.S. betrayal of Israel at the United Nations should the Palestinians try to go that route again for recognition of a state without first making peace with the Jewish state. Nor will it engender more U.S. support for Israel or pressure on the Palestinians to end the current terror offensive that today took more Jewish lives (including that of an American tourist). To the contrary, the best thing would be for the Israelis to give Obama a wide berth over the next ten months until he is safely out of office and Netanyahu can deal with a more friendly ally. Saying “no” to a meeting might have been the smartest thing the prime minister could do.
Though Israel’s critics in the foreign policy establishment and the press will try to make a meal of this latest “insult,” it is nothing of the kind. Those interested in supporting good relations between the two nations and promoting the dim prospects of peace with the Palestinians should ignore this non-story. Or, better yet, treat this incident as merely more evidence of how an administration that came into office determined to create more daylight between Washington and Jerusalem has succeeded in doing so at the expense of an alliance that is in the best interests of both nations.
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