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Netanyahu's charm-offensive

Richard Walker, WashingtonNovember 11, 2015

Eight months after infuriating Obama with his doomed mission to stop the Iran nuclear deal, this week Benjamin Netanyahu was back in Washington. His mission this time: Make nice, with both the president and his party.

Image: Reuters/K. Lamarque

"There's no foreign leader I've met with more frequently." It is a familiar refrain from Barack Obama when he speaks about Benjamin Netanyahu — and as he repeated it before the clattering cameras and dangling microphones in the Oval Office this week, it sounded as weary as ever.

The two leaders' poor relationship is the stuff of Washington legend, the frequency of their encounters not a sign of mutual affection but the sheer volume of grim business they have dealt with during their overlapping tenures.

Netanyahu's last visit to the US capital marked the relationship's lowest point — one at which he did not even receive an invitation to the Oval Office. The Israeli leader's March 5 speech to Congress, imploring lawmakers to block the Iran nuclear deal just as it was being negotiated by the Obama administration, was seen by the White House as a gross breach of protocol and deserving of a very public presidential snub.

But now, eight months later and with the Iran deal now a reality, Netanyahu was back in the Oval Office. And that in itself was something of an achievement, says Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution, one of Washington's keenest observers of the US-Israeli relationship.

"The ability to simply have a business meeting with the President at the White House is a great success from his perspective," he told DW. Netanyahu needed to reassure voters back home that the rancour of the previous months hadn't gone too far. "It helps him divert criticism at home that he has jeopardised the relationship with the United States."

"There's genuine desire to continue to work together"

In fact, Netanyahu emerged from the meeting claiming a resounding success. "It was a very good and constructive meeting," he told reporters: "It was one of the best."

Obama meets Netanyahu in the Oval office of the White House in Washington
Obama meets Netanyahu in the Oval office of the White House in WashingtonImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

But the White House's take on the talks was distinctly less effusive. It did not release the customary readout of the meeting, and when asked whether he agreed with Netanyahu's conclusion that the talks were indeed "one of the best," Obama's spokesman Josh Earnest's response was tepid: "Well, it's hard for me to judge, but I'll just say that I think the White House came away with the impression that there's a genuine desire on the part of our Israeli allies to continue to work together to pursue our national interests."

Netanyahu's charm-offensive might not have been reciprocated by the White House, but it was not his only target. His appearance at the Centre for American Progress raised many eyebrows. The CAP is the Washington's most prominent centre-left think tank — founded by Democratic royalty in the shape of John Podesta, Obama's former top advisor and now chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Israel's progressive credentials

Netanyahu's mere presence at CAP caused a row in Democratic Washington, with a former staffer telling the Huffington Post that it amounted to "progressive validation." Natan Sachs says the appearance was important: a response to what he calls "a looming crisis that Israel is becoming a partisan issue" in the US, with Israel too closely identified with the Republican Party.

The two leaders meet for the first time since the Israeli leader lost his battle against the Iran nuclear deal
The two leaders meet for the first time since the Israeli leader lost his battle against the Iran nuclear dealImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Netanyahu used the appearance to stress Israel's progressive credentials — as the Middle East's only democracy and a haven of women's and gay rights. Was this the beginning of a concerted outreach to the Democratic Party — with the 2016 election just around the corner?

Some of Netanyahu's troubles with Democrats go back to the last election in 2012 when the Israeli leader was seen by many as all but endorsing Obama's rival, Mitt Romney. Looking ahead to 2016, would Netanyahu now stay well away from the fray?

Natan Sachs is not so sure, not least because Netanyahu retains one crucial link to Republican politics that will inevitably get more attention in 2016: the Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. "Sheldon Adelson is still a very large donor of Netanyahu's and is going to be heavily involved in the Republican campaign this time around," Sachs explains.

Renewal of Memorandum of Understanding on agenda

Whoever wins the White House in 2016, Netanyahu can expect a strong commitment to US military aid to Israel — something that has remained unaffected by the tensions with the Obama administration. The renewal of a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding, currently worth $3bn per year, was one concrete item of discussion in his White House talks.

Netanyahu is thought to be bidding for a significant increase — something he wryly hinted at in an appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "The first obligation we have to further the future of Israel is to make sure the country is strong — strong militarily. But that's expensive. I hope you know that!"

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Center for American Progress
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Center for American ProgressImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Smialowski

But Netanyahu stressed that supporting Israel was good value for money from a US perspective: "You spent, on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a trillion and a half dollars. That's five centuries' worth of support for Israel."

For Netanyahu, that support for Israel is all the more important in the wake of the Iran deal — to ensure that it retains its edge over an emboldened and enriched Islamic Republic. And while the Israeli Prime Minister remains sceptical over the deal, Natan Sachs says he will need to work with the US to "get the best of what he thinks is a bad situation…. The deal is not based on simple trust. It is based on verification and deterrence — the understanding in Iran that if it were to break the deal, it would pay a heavy price. That's something that the Israelis and the Americans need to convey together."

But if anything, the conflict with the Palestinians is now superceding the Iran deal on the US-Israeli agenda. The latest upsurge in violence has seen a dozen Israelis killed in Palestinian knife attacks; over 70 Palestinians including more than 40 suspected assailants have been killed by Israeli security forces.

No opportunity for a two-state solution in the near term?

The White House is urging calm, but it is strikingly pessimistic on the prospects of progress towards peace. "This is really the first time since the first term of the Clinton administration where we have an administration that faces a reality where the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution is not in the cards," said Rob Malley of the National Security Council in advance of the Netanyahu visit.

The Obama administration's last push at peace talks broke down in acrimony last year, and the White House remains profoundly critical of Israeli settlement-building as an obstacle to progress. But rather than trying to kickstart the talks again in Obama's final year in office — Sachs says the administration is being more realistic.

"I think it reflects mostly the correct assessment that there is no opportunity for a two-state solution in the near term. And that, therefore, the main challenge now is to try and maintain the two-state solution as a viable option in the future," Sachs says. "It's a grim reality — it's not something that's good. But it is the reality."

It also reflects the reality that while Netanyahu and Obama may have put the lowest point in their relationship behind them, that "doesn't mean that there was any warmth in the meeting or any false closeness between the leaders," Sachs says. "The fundamental differences on policies in two arenas — the Palestinian issue and the Iranian one — still stand."