Even if the Obama and Netanyahu photos and statements following their meeting do not fully reflect what was said in the Oval Office, they convey important messages for our region and for US citizens, who in four months will cast their ballots in the Congress elections.
Obama and Netanyahu had to walk a very fine line. Both of them are pressed between foreign affairs and defense strategies on the one hand, and domestic political elements on the other. Obama is pressed between his approach to Israel and resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and his deteriorating status among voters in general, and among Israel’s friends in particular. Netanyahu is pressed between Obama’s demands and the more rightist components of his coalition.
In all the previous meetings between the two, the US president criticized the prime minister, reprimanded him, pressed him, and in some cases even humiliated him. The US Administration also made an effort to highlight the disagreements between the sides and the president’s dissatisfaction with the prime minister and his policy.
Yet in the latest meeting, the tables were turned. Obama lauded Netanyahu and his policy, treated him with respect, and stressed the areas of agreement with him. Both leaders characterized their meeting as excellent and lavished gratitude and praise at each other.
The change in Obama’s attitude stems from a combination of diplomatic and political elements. The strategy of exerting brutal pressure on the prime minister and creating a crisis in US-Israel relations did not produce the hoped-for results, did not improve America’s status in the Arab and Muslim world, did not promote talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and did not prompt strategic shifts in Netanyahu’s policy.
The opposite was true: America’s status deteriorated, among other things because its Arab allies wondered whether this is the kind of attitude accorded to (as Obama himself characterized it) America’s most important Mideastern ally. Meanwhile, the Palestinians reached the conclusion that they need not do a thing – the US will do the job for them and elicit all the concessions they demanded from Israel.
On the unilateral front, Obama reached the conclusion that it’s better to influence Netanyahu via embraces and encouragement rather than through slaps to the face and pressure. On the regional front, the message that emerged from the meeting is meant to change the interpretation given to the tensions in US-Israel relations, which undermined important regional and global US interests.
The message stopped the deterioration in US-Israeli ties and stressed the close military and diplomatic ties between the sides. Obama is attempting to restore the special relationship between the two states and even gave expression to this by referring to Israel’s nuclear program. He said that because of Israel’s size, past, and the existential threats it faces, the Jewish State is a unique case.
Message to Palestinians, Americans
The message to the Palestinians is that they must stop looking for excuses and enter direct negotiations with Israel. Obama hinted that they should not count on an American peace plan that will be forced upon Israel in case the two sides to the conflict fail to secure an agreement themselves. The message to the region is that the US supports Israel, and anyone who thought he can provoke and harm Israel without paying any price or facing any response better think again.
In four months, elections will be held for all Congress seats and one third of Senate seats. Obama’s status among voters has deteriorated and he needs every vote. His attitude to the prime minister and to Israel provoked criticism among Israel’s friend in the US, including Democratic Party members.
An immense majority of Senators and Congress members of both parties sent the president critical letters on several occasions and demand that he change his attitude to Israel. The frequency of these inquiries was unprecedented. Hence, the meeting with Netanyahu was also meant to reassure Israel’s friends among the voters and stress the change in the Administration’s attitude to Israel.
The dispute with the US also undermined Netanyahu’s status. The strategic ties with the Americans are vital to Israel, and a prime minister who fails to safeguard them appears to undermine our national security, especially at a time when Israel’s global status deteriorates and it faces grave threats on the part of states like Iran and its allies.
The outcome of the meeting with Obama enables Netanyahu to claim that he is restoring the ties with the US without paying a high price. By doing so he boosts his status within the public and among his coalition partners.
The summit meeting did not eliminate the deep gaps that still exist between Obama and Netanyahu in respect to their worldview, ideology, and policy. The manner in which the summit was presented serves first and foremost their shared short-term interests.
Obama wishes to avert a collapse of talks between Israel and the Palestinians and even to advance them to a direct negotiations format. He wishes to boost his status ahead of the November elections among Israel supporters, and hopes and that direct talks will prompt the continuation, in practice, of the construction freeze in the territories.
Netanyahu is interested in direct talks, in restoring the ties with America, and in boosting his coalition. Only towards the end of the year we’ll be able to determine whether the meeting indeed reflected a new chapter of cooperation in US-Israel relations, or merely a lull between periods of disagreement, tensions, and crises.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is an expert on US affairs and a Political Science and Communication lecturer at Bar-Ilan University