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Obama’s Simmering Resentment of Benjamin Netanyahu

Obama’s Simmering Resentment of Benjamin Netanyahu

In his new memoir, the 44th president continues to blame Netanyahu for his own failure to make peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The final chapter of Barack Obama’s third memoir, A Promised Land, begins with an extensive review of the former president’s often-testy relationship with his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Claims that Obama was explicitly anti-Israel or anti-Semitic were always hyperbolic. Still, his assessment of his dealings with Netanyahu reveals the bristling disdain that fueled perceptions he was not a stalwart or reliable ally of the Jewish state.

Obama is a careful writer, and he would never risk something as incendiary as an argument that AIPAC controlled or exercised undue influence over U.S. politics, or that its members had “dual loyalty” toward both Israel and the United States. But in his description of the group and its sway, he doesn’t really keep a safe distance from those arguments, either:

Members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful bipartisan lobbying organization dedicated to ensuring unwavering U.S. support for Israel. AIPAC’s clout could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country, and just about every politician in Washington — including me — counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors. In the past, the organization had accommodated a spectrum of views on Middle East peace, insisting mainly that those seeking its endorsement support a continuation of U.S. aid to Israel and oppose efforts to isolate or condemn Israel via the U.N. and other international bodies. But as Israeli politics had moved to the right, so had AIPAC’s policy positions. Its staff and leaders increasingly argued that there should be ‘no daylight’ between the U.S. and Israeli governments, even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy. Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.

As he gets down to the specifics of his relationship with Netanyahu, his resentment continues to show:

The noise orchestrated by Netanyahu had the intended effect of gobbling up our time, putting us on the defensive, and reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister — even one who presided over a fragile coalition government — exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada or any of our other closest allies.

Time, and the intervening drama of the Trump administration, have made memories of Obama’s worst traits fade somewhat. But in A Promised Land, Obama’s habit of insisting he’s the only adult in the room, the lone voice of reason trapped between two straw-man extremes, returns with a vengeance. He even paints members of his own party as hypocrites and cowards who say they want Middle East peace but are never willing to stand up to the Israeli government:

One afternoon, Ben [Rhodes] hurried in late for a meeting, looking particularly harried after having spent the better part of an hour on the phone with a highly agitated liberal Democratic congressman.

“I thought he opposes settlements,” I said.

“He does,” Ben said. “He also opposes us doing anything to actually stop settlements.”

In another passage, Obama explains how he believed the peace progress should begin:

We knew that Netanyahu would probably resist the idea of a [settlement] freeze. . . . [Netanyahu] would complain that the good-faith gesture we’d be asking from the Palestinians in return — that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority take concrete steps to end incitements to violence inside the West Bank — was a great deal harder to measure. Given the asymmetry in power between Israel and the Palestinians — there wasn’t much, after all, that Abbas could give the Israelis that the Israelis couldn’t already take on their own — I thought it was reasonable to ask the stronger party to take a bigger first step in the direction of peace.

Here a reasonable person might argue that Obama’s belief that the stronger and more powerful side in diplomatic negotiations is morally obligated to begin by making concrete concessions in exchange for symbolic gestures is in fact the root of the problem. Powerful people and institutions did not become powerful by giving away something for nothing. What’s more, the uniquely vulnerable position Israel occupies — the threats it has faced on all sides for its entire existence — and the Palestinian Authority’s historical unreliability as a negotiating partner make its wariness of conceding too much in the peace process entirely understandable.

The portrait of Netanyahu that Obama paints — he writes that the prime minister’s “philosophy neatly aligned him with the most hawkish members of AIPAC, as well as Republican officials and wealthy American right-wingers” — is a particularly unflattering one, and he closes on a dark note, suggesting that Netanyahu and other leaders in the Middle East never seriously intended to seek a lasting peace:

I couldn’t help feeling a vague sense of disquiet. The speeches, the small talk, the easy familiarity — it all felt too comfortable, almost ritualized, a performance that the four leaders had probably participated in dozens of times before, designed to placate the latest U.S. president who thought things could change. . . . In the months to come, I’d think back often to my dinner with Abbas and Netanyahu, Mubarak and King Abdullah, the pantomime of it, their lack of resolve.

There’s just one glaring complication to Obama’s cynical interpretation, and that’s that Netanyahu is still leading Israel, and in just the past few months his government has signed major diplomatic agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan. This would suggest that he is more than willing to sign treaties, as long as he feels certain that they won’t harm Israel’s security interests. Obama’s failure to facilitate diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and Arab or Muslim states was not, it turns out, the fault of Netanyahu’s intransigence; it was the fault of his own unworkable approach to the problem. No wonder he’s still grumbling about it.

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