Newspaper article International New York Times

Netanyahu and Obama: A Tortured Relationship ; Divided by Ideology, Their History Is One of Mistrust and Perceived Slights

Newspaper article International New York Times

Netanyahu and Obama: A Tortured Relationship ; Divided by Ideology, Their History Is One of Mistrust and Perceived Slights

Article excerpt

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House on Monday, he and President Obama had reasons to put the past behind them.

For President Obama, it was a day of celebration. He had just signed the most important domestic measure of his presidency, his health care program. So when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrived at the White House for a hastily arranged visit, it was probably not the main thing on his mind.

To White House officials, it was a show of respect to make time for Mr. Netanyahu on that day back in March 2010. But Mr. Netanyahu did not see it that way. He felt squeezed in, not accorded the rituals of such a visit. No photographers were invited to record the moment. "That wasn't a good way to treat me," he complained to an American afterward.

The tortured relationship between Barack and Bibi, as they call each other, has been a story of crossed signals, misunderstandings, slights perceived and real. Burdened by mistrust, divided by ideology, the leaders of the United States and Israel talked past each other for years until the rupture over Mr. Obama's push for a nuclear agreement with Iran led to the spectacle of Mr. Netanyahu denouncing the president's efforts before a joint meeting of Congress.

Mr. Netanyahu was to arrive at the White House on Monday for his first visit in more than a year. They will discuss a new security agreement and ways to counter Iran.

Both leaders have reasons to put the past behind them. But few believe their relationship can ever be more than coolly transactional. Undergirding their personal disconnect are different worldviews. Mr. Obama sees Mr. Netanyahu as captured by a hard-line philosophy that blocks progress. Mr. Netanyahu considers Mr. Obama hopelessly naive about one of the world's most volatile neighborhoods.

"They have a fraught relationship, and it's fueled by a belief on the part of both of them that the other is trying to screw them, trip them up, thwart their policies, corner them, ambush them," said Martin Indyk, the president's former special envoy to the Middle East. "They each have a number of cases where they feel the other acted in bad faith."

Rising Tensions

Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu first met in 2007 when their aides hastily arranged a chat at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in a janitor's office. Mr. Netanyahu, then in the opposition, was heading home, and Mr. Obama, running for president, was returning from the campaign trail. They "actually had chemistry," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president's deputy national security adviser.

Mr. Netanyahu was impressed. "He's got it, he can beat Hillary," he told advisers afterward, according to Uzi Arad, Mr. Netanyahu's former national security adviser, referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was also seeking the Democratic nomination.

They met again, in July 2008, when Mr. Obama had secured the Democratic nomination and was visiting Jerusalem. The day before, a Palestinian had rammed a bulldozer into Israelis at a bus stop. After talking about security, Mr. Netanyahu suggested that they walk to the attack site. Mr. Obama demurred, seeing it as showmanship.

Once he was president, Mr. Obama made obtaining a Middle East peace agreement a priority, announcing the appointment of former Senator George J. Mitchell as special envoy two days after taking office. "I really want to try to do something here," Mr. Mitchell recalled the president telling him.

As a start, Mr. Obama decided to press Israel to freeze settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, urged a strong stand, saying that otherwise Mr. Netanyahu, now prime minister, would "walk all over us," as Mrs. Clinton, then the secretary of state, put it in her memoir.

The decision was included in a White House briefing paper without asking Mr. Mitchell first. Mr. Mitchell supported the idea. But others did not. …

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