Vicious truths best left behind closed doors rarely match the superficial and carefully scripted handshakes and warm wishes that cloak difficult U.S.-Israeli relations. But President Barack Obama’s testy impatience with Israel’s tough-talking and unreliable Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is Washington’s worst-kept secret.
The two have what is often regarded as the worst relations between an American president and the head of the Jewish state since its founding in 1948.
So the revelation that France’s President, Nicolas Sarkozy, regards Mr. Netanyahu as “a liar” and frankly says: ‘I can’t bear Netanyahu” is less a surprise than a confirmation of widely accepted views.
Even less of a surprise is that Mr. Obama, who pointedly snubbed Mr. Netanyahu on the Israeli Prime Minister’s last visit to Washington, trumped the French President when he replied: “You’re fed up, but I have to deal with him every day.”
The backroom exchange at last week’s G20 summit in Cannes was picked up by microphones worn by the two leaders and delivered to a waiting press corps before the start of a scheduled news conference.
Perhaps the only real surprise is that a clutch of journalists privy to the conversation apparently agreed to keep it secret. That didn’t last long.
Still, Mr. Obama’s public disparagement of the Israeli leader will only worsen already miserable relations between the two men.
Their mutual dislike goes beyond the personal.
They differ sharply on policy, and Mr. Netanyahu, in particular, seems to have gone out of his way to publicly snub the President and show himself off at home as a tough guy.
Every meeting between the two is fraught and full of drama.
Mr. Obama’s chilly relations with Mr. Netanyahu have further alienated the President from America’s right-wing Christians, who tend to ardently support the Jewish state. More problematic for the President is whether his policies will erode support among Jewish Americans, who form a vital voting block in some swing states such as Florida.
Last May, after Mr. Obama restated long-standing American policy – but did so with a barb by pointedly referring to Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries – it sparked a huge flap and much nastiness in Washington and Israel.
“Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967,” Mr. Netanyahu bluntly said, the third time in five days he explicitly rejected Mr. Obama’s qualified call for those lines, redrawn with “mutually agreed swaps” of territory, to be a starting point for negotiations.
An earlier snub provoked this: “There is no humiliation exercise that the Americans did not try on the prime minister and his entourage,” according to Israel’s Maariv newspaper. And with just a touch of racism, it added: “Bibi received in the White House the treatment reserved for the president of Equatorial Guinea.”
While the powerful Jewish-American lobby keeps trying to patch up relations, the reality is that Mr. Obama’s policies are at odds with Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line approach.
Mr. Obama wants Israel to make good on its many – and equally often broken – promises to cease settlement building in the West Bank.
The policy differences have spilled into first private, then public snubs. Fed up with Mr. Netanyahu’s intransigence at one White House meeting, Mr. Obama told the Israeli leader that he was leaving for dinner with Michelle and his daughters in the private quarters, leaving Mr. Netanyahu cooling his heels.
Mr. Obama is not alone in his distaste for what many regard as Mr. Netanyahu’s duplicity. That Mr. Sarkozy called him a “liar” – even in private – demonstrates the depth of the aversion. Other European leaders have increasingly distanced themselves from Mr. Netanyahu.
The more important fact, however, is whether the evident dislike between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu dooms hope for a Palestinian-Israeli peace as long as they are both in office.