If one considers a single word that best encapsulates President Barack Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu throughout the past six years, the colloquial portmanteau “frenemies” immediately comes to mind. Dictated by circumstance, Obama and Netanyahu’s arranged matrimony has seen numerous peaks and troughs throughout its six-year duration. Despite a fairly consistent, underlying message of unity between the United States and Israel, Obama and Netanyahu have repeatedly made it clear that there is no love lost between them. Frenemies.
For years, this bizarre half-respect-half-contempt relationship has seemed to work for the two leaders (“work” may be an optimistic term, but at the very least, the United States’ financial and military support for Israel never wavered). Any disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu were quickly swept under the diplomatic rug by brief statements from the U.S. State Department reaffirming that skies were blue when it came to relations with Israel. However, after the most recent incident involving Netanyahu’s acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to speak in front of Congress (purportedly, without White House approval), it seems that even the most savvy PR firm in the world could not find a way to apply a positive spin to the situation.
The gloves have come off. By circumventing the White House and entreating the newly Republican-controlled Congress directly, Netanyahu is making two things quite clear. First, that he is no longer interested in upholding the charade that he and President Obama have an iota of respect for one another. Second, that he is desperately hoping for a conservative leader to emerge victorious from the 2016 presidential elections.
There is much discussion around whether or not Netanyahu is violating any rules by accepting Boehner’s invitation, but even if Netanyahu is acting within his full rights, he definitely did not go out of his way to be polite to the Obama administration in doing so. In fact, as the Washington Post reports, multiple anonymous White House officials have clearly stated their indignation, going so far as to say that “there are things you simply don’t do. [Netanyahu] spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave.”
As Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post puts it, it appears “that the White House has become unhinged.”
Netanyahu’s act is apparently so heinous that it merited a veritable threat from an unnamed White House official: “Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price.” Do allies with an “unshakable” commitment to one another often levy statements of such hazardous nature? But then again, Netanyahu had to have known what he was getting himself into, going behind the back of the leader of the free world and all.
Taking a step back, it is not as if Obama has restrained himself from taking his share of jabs at Netanyahu over the years. In a particularly media-friendly incident in 2011, when former French President Nicholas Sarkozy stated that he “cannot bear Netanyahu” and called him “a liar” during an unexpectedly-recorded private chat, Obama’s response screamed implicit agreement.
Netanyahu has drawn ire from Obama and his administration time and again by continuing to endorse construction of new settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli leader firmly believes that the land is unequivocally part of Israel, and that handing it over to the Palestinians would do nothing to quell the murderous intentions of a highly active militant contingent among them.
In turn, Obama views this construction as counterproductive to a possible two-state peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, the rift between Obama and Netanyahu extends far beyond the issue of West Bank settlements — it is an ultimately existential chasm deepened by politically diametric attitudes. Ubiquitous political caricatures (exaggerated and one-dimensional by nature) of the two leaders that include a hawkish and war-mongering Netanyahu and a crowd-pleasing, weak Obama highlight their opposing dispositions toward solving issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear disarmament of Iran.
Do these differences warrant petulant name-calling by senior White House officials? Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic writes that he has compiled a list of adjectives that White House officials have attached to Netanyahu, an acrimonious catalog that includes “recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery’.” The entire English language could not supply a sufficient quantity of verbal barbs, forcing the White House to dip into its stash of fictional vocabulary to produce the last adjective on the list, which, in addition to being offensive, is not a real word.
Even though Obama does not personally partake in his administration’s verbal stoning of Netanyahu, it would be fair to assume that his senior officials are ideological extensions of himself and that he tacitly condones their rhetoric. To risk beating a dead horse, it is pretty clear that Obama and Netanyahu do not see eye-to-eye on almost anything.
The Washington Post reports that Netanyahu’s stated goal in accepting Boehner’s invitation is to reiterate his concerns around the potential Iran’s nuclear capabilities and to encourage “congressional efforts to expand sanctions on the regime in Tehran.” Much like Netanyahu’s ratification of West Bank settlements, this message flies squarely in the face of Obama’s modus operandi, since additional sanctions would most certainly “undermine current diplomatic efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.”
Whether or not one believes that diplomacy is still a viable option, it is evident that Netanyahu no longer wishes to negotiate with President Obama and is attempting to capitalize on a reinvigorated Republican presence in the government (after all, Republicans have historically tended to favor Netanyahu’s hard-line approach). Indeed, constitutional law would hypothetically permit Netanyahu to work with Congress to pass laws that, even if vetoed by President Obama, could be forcibly enacted given a two-thirds majority vote in both the Senate and the House.
Is this unorthodox strategy sustainable? Assuming the Republican candidate takes the reigns after the 2016 presidential elections, Netanyahu’s partisan gamble may go unpunished. If another Democrat were to win, however, Netanyahu may be in for another four (or eight) years of icy relations, given that he keeps his own job pending the results of the Israeli elections in March. Democrats have already rallied around Obama in response to Netanyahu’s perceived insult, going so far as threatening to boycott the speech to Congress. Furthermore, if and when the pendulum-like balance of power in Congress swings back to a position favoring the Democrats, Netanyahu (or his successor) may lose all leverage altogether. Stated simply, Netanyahu does not possess the political bargaining power to influence U.S. foreign policy on a long-term basis without the president’s support.
Irrespective of one’s political views, it is undeniable that Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous and potentially short-sighted game by actively catalyzing the implosion of his relationship with President Obama. Israel’s chances of survival are firmly rooted in American support, and while the current administration admirably continues to maintain that its relationship to Israel “is above partisan politics,” even the most steadfast and buttressed ties can reach a breaking point.
As true as it may be, it is decidedly irrelevant that President Obama deserves an equal share of the blame for devolving his communication with Netanyahu into something resembling a juvenile playground spat — the fact remains that allowing relations to atrophy is more visibly deleterious to Israel than it is to the United States.
Therefore, Netanyahu may by forced to accept the reality that he cannot bypass the executive branch of the U.S. government if he is not satisfied with how it is handling an internal matter of foreign policy. He may need to learn to play nice with the White House, whether or not he endorses the diplomacy it is preaching. Otherwise, he risks not only harming Israel’s relationship with the United States during his own stewardship, but also jeopardizing a historically symbiotic partnership based on respect, trust, and the pursuit of mutual goals.