The relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here after Obama’s arrival in Israel on March 20, 2013, has been marked by reports of tensions. (Pete Souza/White House)
WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not the best of friends — that seems pretty clear by now.
But following reports during the Gaza conflict of cut-off phone calls, tough talk of “demands” and eavesdropping, it may be time for them to figure out a way back to steadier ground.
JTA asked an array of experts on the U.S.-Israel relationship what the two leaders must do to restore a relationship that both say is critical for their countries.
Deus ex machina: A crisis will bring us together
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator under Democratic and Republican presidents, remembers the last such breach between U.S. and Israeli leaders — when George H.W. Bush was president and Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister – and it was worse, he says. That is, until Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
“The only thing that will improve the relationship is the emergence of a joint project that affords both of the them the opportunity to get on the same page and succeeds and makes them look good,” said Miller, now a vice president at the Wilson Center. The first Persian Gulf War and the subsequent Madrid peace talks are “what saved the Bush-Shamir relationship.”
“You need a set circumstances that compels the United States and Israel to operate in a way that not just manages something but accomplishes something and makes them look good,” Miller said. “That’s the only thing that will do it — phone calls and warm statements won’t do it.”
Let’s talk big picture
Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs in Obama’s first term and now is director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, says Netanyahu and Obama should talk not about the specific near-term issues they face but about what they want to get done and what kind of legacies they wish to leave.
“Both of these guys have a clear sense of what they were put there to do,” Wittes told JTA. “Both of them have a clear sense of what they want to leave behind. And I am confident that one of the things both of them want to leave behind is a strong and solid U.S.-Israel relationship. That broader, deeper conversation will help them get past practical differences.”
Honey, we’ve both changed since we were young and in love
Haim Malka, the deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says their big-picture talk should focus on how America and Israel each are changing.
“Young people in America don’t have the same kind of perception of Israel as their parents and grandparents — in part because they grew up at a time when Israel has been a strong military power. They don’t see the same threat their …read more