This odd couple’s ties are the most tenuous we’ve seen between the White House and Jerusalem. From the beginning, the Obama administration has prompted a batten-down-the-hatches mentality in Netanyahu’s circle — much the same way tough anti-settlement talk from President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker worried Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as peace envoy within two days of his first inauguration, his repeated calls for a settlement freeze and his outreach to the Arab and Muslim world in his 2009 Cairo speech convinced Netanyahu that Obama was going to press him hard. When I saw the prime minister in May 2010, he gave me the impression that he thought Obama wanted someone else in the job. That feeling was probably mutual.
Netanyahu has played a big part in creating the tension, too — embarrassing a very pro-Israel Vice President Biden with the announcement of new housing construction in east Jerusalem during Biden’s trip to Israel in 2010, lecturing Obama during a news conference while visiting Washington in 2011 and sending signals in 2012 that he would prefer to work with Mitt Romney as president.
Every serious and successful American mediator fights with the Israelis. It’s part of the job description. But the fights need to be productive and advance the peace process, not stall it. Sure, settlements are bad — they humiliate Palestinians, erode the chances for a two-state solution and pre-judge the borders of such an agreement. But unless Obama was prepared to pressure or punish Netanyahu if he didn’t stop expanding the settlements — something no Israeli prime minister, no matter how dovish, would do — pushing this issue was a key to an empty room. By making a settlement freeze the centerpiece of his approach to negotiations, Obama lost credibility with Israel and then with the Palestinians and Arabs when he backed down. Trying to bribe the Israelis with military hardware in 2010 if they would agree to a freeze made Obama look even worse.
Add to the president’s missteps the fact that Netanyahu trusts no one, certainly not Arabs and Americans who think they know his region better than he does. Netanyahu once told me that I should never forget that I lived in Chevy Chase, Md., not in his tough neighborhood. During his first incarnation as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, he even annoyed and distrusted Bill Clinton, a man who understood Netanyahu and cut him more than a few breaks.