When President Obama arrives in Israel on Wednesday, he will face all the usual issues that have confronted leaders of the two allied countries in the six decades since the Jewish nation was created — threats from enemies on all sides, the status of Jerusalem, the creation of a Palestinian state, and U.S. support for a fellow democracy. But even as Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deal with these life-and-death issues of substance and policy, it is the personal element that perhaps most looms over this summit.
For, more so than any previous time in U.S.-Israeli relations, it is widely believed that this American president and Israeli prime minister don't like each other. And, as always in diplomacy, the personal has a bearing on the policy. Even as both governments deny any personal enmity, it is undeniable that the two leaders have had difficulty working together over the last four years.
"This is the most dysfunctional relationship between an American president and any Israeli prime minister in the history of the relationship," said Aaron Miller, who advised secretaries of State from both parties on Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1978 to 2003 and now is a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center.
"You have two people who really don't like each other," said Samuel Lewis, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel under Presidents Carter and Reagan and spent three decades at the State Department. Speaking earlier this year at a Wilson Center forum, Lewis said, "You have two people who both have good reason not to like each other because of each other's behavior."
The evidence of a rift between the two men is abundant. In 2010, Israel embarrassed the Obama administration by announcing 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel. Also in 2010, Netanyahu fed the perception that the president had snubbed him to have dinner with his family. Then, in 2011, Obama angered Netanyahu by stating that the 1967 borders should be the basis for future negotiations. That provoked Netanyahu to deliver an unprecedented lecture to the president in the Oval Office.
Last year, Netanyahu came as close as he could to interfering in American domestic politics, stopping just short of an outright endorsement of Republican Mitt Romney but leaving no doubt he preferred a Romney victory over an Obama win. And he fed stories in September that he was miffed when Obama refused to meet him while he was in the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
And earlier this year, Israelis were stung when Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic — one of the most influential analysts of Israel — wrote, "On matters related to the Palestinians, the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise." That came after Netanyahu announced it would be building 3,000 additional housing units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Against that backdrop comes Obama's first trip to Israel and the first meeting between the two leaders since each was reelected.
On one level, that could be trouble. As David Horowitz, former editor of The Jerusalem Post, said after the Israeli election, "They both feel completely vindicated that the public has chosen them again.... Each of them thinks they understand the best interests of both countries better than the other."
But these are now experienced leaders who understand the stakes in the most volatile region in the world. Both understand the critical nature of the alliance. And that realization is expected to trump their personal distaste. "There is really a shared goal here to portray a successful relationship," said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "It's in the interest of both parties."
Sachs called attention to an interview the president gave last week to Israel's Channel Two. "He used the word "˜Bibi' four times and it was very obviously a message," he said, calling the use of the prime minister's nickname an effort to downplay the severity of their disagreements.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk also expects the two leaders to put on a show of comity, predicting that Netanyahu "will go out of his way to make sure that it's a successful visit." In part, that is because the Israeli people "don't like the idea that their prime minister doesn't have a good relationship with the president." And, as much as he may not like Netanyahu, it is not in Obama's interest to display that this week. Indyk said not to "expect that you're going to see on this trip some coldness coming from the president. I think that would go against everything he's trying to achieve in this trip."
Unlike some earlier trips to the region by presidents, Obama's goals are modest as he visits Israel, the Palestinian territory, and Jordan before returning home Saturday. Nobody expects any breakthroughs in the stalled peace process. "This trip is about managing Middle East problems. It's not about solving them," said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's a region in turmoil and the president is walking into chaotic Israeli and Palestinian political environments."
Topping the agenda will be Iran's nuclear program, Syria's continuing unrest, and the Palestinian impasse. With no substantive progress expected, Malka believes a prime purpose of the trip will be winning over wary publics on both sides. "The Palestinian public feels that the president has abandoned them and that their overall situation has deteriorated in the last your years," he said, adding, "So the president is facing two publics that have generally been skeptical and suspicious of his politics and his policies."
At the White House, it is the outreach to public opinion that is being stressed in advance of the president's arrival in the region. "This is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications. He added, "Beyond that, it's a very important time for him to also reinforce U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority."
That is why the White House views as the centerpiece of the trip his speech on Thursday to Israeli youth gathered at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
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