Israel | National | News

How Obama and Netanyahu can make up

The relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here after Obama's arrival in Israel on March 20, 2013, has been marked by reports of tensions. (Pete Souza/White House)
The relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here after Obama’s arrival in Israel on March 20, 2013, has been marked by reports of tensions. (Pete Souza/White House)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not the best of friends — that seems pretty clear by now.

But following reports during the Gaza conflict of cut-off phone calls, tough talk of “demands” and eavesdropping, it may be time for them to figure out a way back to steadier ground.

JTA asked an array of experts on the U.S.-Israel relationship what the two leaders must do to restore a relationship that both say is critical for their countries.

Deus ex machina: A crisis will bring us together

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator under Democratic and Republican presidents, remembers the last such breach between U.S. and Israeli leaders — when George H.W. Bush was president and Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister – and it was worse, he says. That is, until Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

“The only thing that will improve the relationship is the emergence of a joint project that affords both of the them the opportunity to get on the same page and succeeds and makes them look good,” said Miller, now a vice president at the Wilson Center. The first Persian Gulf War and the subsequent Madrid peace talks are “what saved the Bush-Shamir relationship.”

“You need a set circumstances that compels the United States and Israel to operate in a way that not just manages something but accomplishes something and makes them look good,” Miller said. “That’s the only thing that will do it — phone calls and warm statements won’t do it.”

Let’s talk big picture

Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs in Obama’s first term and now is director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says Netanyahu and Obama should talk not about the specific near-term issues they face but about what they want to get done and what kind of legacies they wish to leave.

“Both of these guys have a clear sense of what they were put there to do,” Wittes told JTA. “Both of them have a clear sense of what they want to leave behind. And I am confident that one of the things both of them want to leave behind is a strong and solid U.S.-Israel relationship. That broader, deeper conversation will help them get past practical differences.”

Honey, we’ve both changed since we were young and in love

Haim Malka, the deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says their big-picture talk should focus on how America and Israel each are changing.

“Young people in America don’t have the same kind of perception of Israel as their parents and grandparents — in part because they grew up at a time when Israel has been a strong military power. They don’t see the same threat their parents did,” said Malka, who in 2011 wrote a book about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “The U.S. and Israel need a serious conversation about the relationship, the tension points in the relationship and why it’s changing.”
Martin Indyk, who until June was the top U.S. Middle East peace negotiator and is now a Brookings Institution vice president, says the United States must recognize Israel’s shifting alliances.

Israel, as opposed to past crises in the relationship with the United States, “is strong economically, strong militarily and has a range of relationships across the world with other powers beyond the United States,” Indyk said Tuesday at a Brookings event on the Gaza war aftermath, citing India, China and Russia as examples of Israel’s burgeoning friendships. “They feel more independent of the United States than they have in the past that they can stand on their own two feet.

“They also feel they have relationships in the Arab world that they never had before,” Indyk added, noting that Egypt explicitly sided with Israel during the recent Gaza war, and that Saudi Arabia and several other Sunni-led countries did so tacitly.

We need to talk about that thing

Both leaders also need to address third rails — like the $3 billion in defense assistance Israel receives from the United States, Malka said.

“There has to be an honest discussion about the sustainability of U.S. military aid and about how that affects the relationship,” he said. “Does Israel want to continue to be a dependent country, or does it want to graduate to a different kind of status?”

Maybe we shouldn’t talk at all

The solution for the animosity that Netanyahu and Obama have for one another is to keep them apart and have a fixer mediate, said Robert Danin, who specialized in the Middle East in high-ranking positions in the George W. Bush administration and assisted Tony Blair in his capacity as Middle East peace mediator.

“President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu now have over five years of accumulated baggage, so I don’t see how they are going to reconcile,” said Danin, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“What appears to be sorely lacking right now is a trusted and discreet private channel between the two leaders,” he told JTA. “You need a trusted emissary who operates below the radar who can go back and forth between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office. This person can quietly solve problems, clarify misunderstandings and serve to manage the relationship.”

Maybe everyone should just shut up

Stop the leaks is the advice of Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“So much is flying back and forth that does not make either leader look competent and does not make the relationship look solid,” said Schanzer, who was a terrorism finance analyst under President George W. Bush.

“It makes very little sense to me that this administration has allowed for leaks given how tight their communications are,” he said. “From the Israeli side, we know leaking is a contact sport. Netanyahu needs to do a better job of keeping his right flank in check.”

Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy who focuses on Israel, said each side needs to better understand how leaks play out on the other.

“In Israel, when a junior minister criticizes the United States, it’s understood he’s speaking for himself. In America, it’s assumed that the government thinks that way,” he said. “Israelis have to be much more careful in the way they speak. The converse is that Americans need to take it more with a grain of salt.”

Deal with Iran already

The Iranian nuclear program issue is deeply distorting the relationship, Schanzer said. Dealing with Iran’s suspected weapons program needs to come to a head.

“Whatever tensions existed during this latest round of violence with Hamas, tensions would not have been as high without the backdrop of Iran nuclear,” he said. “The fact that this has gone on for years without conclusion and the Israelis have been told and told to wait, it’s pushed both sides to a place where we do not want tensions to be.”