"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.