international analysis and commentary

Obama and Netanyahu: the friendship that never was


It is well known that the nearly overlapping administrations of President Barack Obama in the United States and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel have marked a low point in the relations between the two allies. Since coming to office within a couple of months of each other in 2009, Obama and Netanyahu have had profound disagreements on pretty much any issue under the sun, from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the aftermath of the Arab Spring to the Iranian nuclear deal.

Such tensions between them have resulted partly from their rather different temperaments and worldviews. But they should also be placed in the broader context of major realignments in the Mid East region and of what remains a highly volatile strategic environment. While Netanyahu was reconfirmed to another four years in his post in the early elections of March 2015, Obama’s time in office will conclude in January of 2017. If the ongoing campaign for the White Houseis any indication, chances are that we will see a shift in US-Israel relations come next year, one that is likely to benefit Netanyahu.

The Obama years have seen zero progress toward the peace process despite the great efforts expended by his administration. The much sought after two-state solution, which officially remains the end goal of the US and of the international community, is losing more and more ground to talks of a one-state alternative. As Thomas Friedman recently argued from the pages of the New York Times, “The next US president will have to deal with an Israel determined to permanently occupy all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, including where 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians live.”

On Obama’s Iran gamble, the jury is still out. Despite Israel’s vehement opposition, the international community concluded the nuclear deal with Teheran in July of last year. In September, the US Congress ratified it. International sanctions against Iran started being lifted in mid-January. Netanyahu has described the agreement as a “stunning historic mistake”, making his case even on Capital Hill in March 2015. After the accord came into effect, Netanyahu has shifted his focus to the enforcement of the terms of the deal going forward. He has also clinched a large US military aid package, which Washington was keen on delivering precisely in order to appease the Israeli leadership and Israel supporters in America after the rapprochement with Iran.

It’s a whole different story when it comes to the instability of the Middle East in the context of the Syrian conflict and the general collapse of order and security across the region. If Obama welcomed the popular revolts of the Arab Spring warmly, though with almost tangible apprehension, Netanyahu always looked at them with great distress. He sent a nearly apocalyptic warning already in 2011, calling Western leaders “naïve” for their support of the uprisings, which he described as an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave”. In light of how things have turned out in, among others, Egypt, Libya and Syria, Netanyahu may have been on to something. As uncertainty reigns supreme as to the future of US involvement in all these conflict areas, Israel is desperate to manage the descent into chaos of its neighbors.

Netanyahu also recently hinted thattoday’s turmoil “allows for different thinking” on the status of the Golan Heights. Implicitly, he was asking the White House to consider finally granting official recognition to Israel’s control of that part of Syria, which it occupied in 1981. 

Oddly enough, we might be in for a honeymoon of sorts until the final days of Obama’s term.With the Iran deal now in the rearview mirror, the peace process on hold, and this US President on his way out, tensions between the two allies may just soften this year. Much of where the bilateral relationship is going in the future depends, at this point, on whom gets elected the next President of the US. Regardless, the winds might be changing in favor of Israel. If Republican candidates are constantly trying to outdo each other in their support for the alliance, Hillary Clinton is also viewed as much friendlier to Israel than Obama has been.

Furthermore, several factors are pushing both sides to a more sober assessment of their options in the absence of a smooth working relationship. The US needs to put its traditional alliances – Israel but also Saudi Arabia, other Gulf monarchies and Egypt – on a new and more solid footing after a deliberate effort to reshape them. The Iran nuclear deal was the central component of Washington’s rebalancing act, but the time has come for a frank conversation with the Israeli government and others in the Middle East that are understandably terrified by the prospect of more and wider regional conflicts. On its part, Israel must reassess its diplomatic options in the face of relative isolation in a hyper-dangerous neighborhood where not even enemies are the same as in the old days. A few good friends and partners are thus most precious than ever, and something can certainly be done to better pursue common goals with Washington.

The odd, on-again off-again Obama-Netanyahu couple might just have one last chance to make up.