Conflict & Justice

Israel's Netanyahu in Washington

Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu are not believed to be the very best of friends. As the New York Times puts it, they don't trust each other. At other times in history, American presidents and Israeli prime ministers have developed close bonds. Bush and Sharon, for example, Clinton and Rabin. These leaders had chemistry. The question is, how much does it matter if Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu don't?

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"I think that President Obama will turn to him the cold shoulder, but it's not practical. It doesn't mean anything." Danny Rubinstein is a veteran Israeli journalist and lecturer at Ben Gurion University. "It doesn't matter whether it will be cold or it will be warm, it will be without chemistry or with chemistry, without chemistry, doesn't play any role here. It's not important at all. What's important is practically what you're doing," Rubinstein said.

But as one former Israeli negotiator said, getting things done in the world of diplomacy is easier when leaders are genuinely close. It makes communication more efficient. And it makes it a whole lot easier for lower level officials to collaborate.

David Horowitz, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, said personal relationships absolutely matter, because often they're indicative of something else, something that could cause real problems. Horowitz recalled the last time Benjamin Netanyahu was Israel's prime minister, back in the late 90s.

"Why did Clinton and Netanyahu not get on terribly well? Was it because, you know, he had a soft handshake or he didn't like his tie or couldn't stand his wife?" Horowitz asked. "Well, I doubt if those were the central factors. More likely, it was because each thought that the other stood for certain things, personally, politically, I don't know, that the other didn't approve of."

If President Obama is no fan of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Horowitz said Israelis might see that as a reflection of the way the US president views their nation.

"There's a very widespread sense that Obama has empathy for Israel in its pre-67 dimensions, and not a great deal of empathy for Israeli security, religious and historic desires to — however marginally — expand sovereignty into Judea and Samaria, into the West Bank," he said. "And I think that Obama is not convinced of Netanyahu's readiness to make dramatic compromise."

But other analysts suggest the lack of chemistry between Netanyahu and Obama might actually be helpful. it's much easier to cajole, to push, maybe even to threaten — the thinking goes — if you're not worried about hurting your friend's feelings.

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