Did the Obama-Netanyahu Relationship Just Get Worse? President Castigates Israeli Leader from the Oval Office


This never happens.

U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers, however sharply they disagree, simply do not take public pot shots at one another for the world to see. Until now.

Six years of petty insults between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sensationally burst into the open Tuesday in an extraordinary display of Washington political theater, produced by a combination of the alarming threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb, the cliffhanger climax of U.S. diplomacy with Tehran and the hyper-partisan politics in both nations. The legacies of two political giants were on the line, and the fact that neither ceded any ground has serious implications for already strained U.S.-Israel relations.

Netanyahu’s combative — and at times poetic — address to the U.S. Congress was more than a critique of Obama’s Iran policy. It was a detailed repudiation of the U.S. leader’s entire approach to the Middle East and the very idea of talking to the Islamic Republic, which the Israeli leader said was waging a “deadly Game of Thrones” for regional hegemony. Engaging Iran has been an Obama goal since he was a presidential candidate, but the Israeli leader set out to prove his American counterpart is naive about the dangers of the Middle East and the treacherous forces that are tearing it apart.

Obama’s rebuttal

Two hours after Netanyahu left his grand stage, Obama offered his rebuttal, from his own fabled political pedestal — the Oval Office. He dismissed the Israeli leader’s speech — possibly the signature moment of his long political career — as “nothing new” and castigated him for not laying out a viable alternative to the intricate talks between world powers and Tehran to stop Iran from getting the bomb.

It’s a public confrontation that has been brewing for years. But it has more often played out in background briefings, awkward photo ops and tense body language than dueling public statements that reveal the reality that Netanyahu and Obama have never clicked. While respecting, and often publicly glorifying, the bond between the United States and Israel, they’ve feuded behind closed doors about Obama’s choice to use carrot-and-stick diplomacy rather than unrelenting pressure and even tighter sanctions to thwart Iran’s nuclear program and about two failed administration efforts to broker Middle East peace.

While the U.S. and Israeli governments have certainly fallen out in the past, this clash is different.

“This is big,” said Robert Danin, senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is something qualitatively different taking place.”

Israel’s suspicion has been simmering for years, following the president’s vow to forge a “new beginning” with the Muslim world in Cairo at the beginning of his presidency, the administration’s pursuit of a secret U.S. diplomatic track with Tehran and Obama’s decision to break 30 years of silence in U.S.-Iran relations by calling President Hassan Rouhani and writing letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The implication of Netanyahu’s speech was stunning. Here was an Israeli prime minister, effectively accusing the president of signing up to a deal that would not eradicate Iran’s nuclear program but that could allow Iran to press ahead for a nuclear arsenal it could use to make good on its threats to destroy the Jewish state.

That was tough for some Democrats to process.

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SOURCE: Stephen Collinson

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