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Obama and Netanyahu's acrimony makes for 'intriguing sideshow'

When Obama and Netanyahu meet for dinner, neither will want a repeat of their tiff of 2011. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

An elephant in the room: US President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in May, 2011.
An elephant in the room: US President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office in May, 2011.

RAMALLAH // When they dine together in Jerusalem tonight, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu may immediately delve into the thorny issues of Iran's nuclear programme, Syria's civil war or the lifeless Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Or the dinner conversation between the visiting US president and the Israeli prime minister could start off by acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room - their fraught relations.

The leaders are not known for their rapport. Or as Gabriel Ben-Dor, professor of political science at Haifa University, put it: "They hate each other's guts."

Suspicion, spats and acrimony between US presidents and Israeli prime ministers have long been an intriguing sideshow to the otherwise robust diplomatic and military ties between their countries.

But during his three-day tour of the West Bank, Israel and Jordan, Mr Obama intends to place repairing his relationship with Mr Netanyahu high on the agenda. The highly publicised tiffs between the leaders have strained relations between the two countries and in the view of some observers, has hampered Washington's ability to influence Israeli behaviour, including its policies towards the Palestinians.

"If there's no goodwill, then there's a fundamental lack of trust," Mr Ben-Dor said.

While the nations Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu represent are the closest of allies, the relationship between the two men is not warm and has often been tested by their differing political views.

In 2011, an angry Mr Netanyahu, in a lecturing tone, gave an extended lesson in Israeli and Jewish history to Mr Obama in the White House, a day after the US president said that the borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps. As the Israeli leader waxed on in the Oval Office, Mr Obama only stared back.

Mr Obama has been no less flattering to Mr Netanyahu. In a private conversation with French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, at a G20 summit in 2011, the US president was overheard appearing to agree with the French leader's description of Mr Netanyahu as "a liar".

"You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him more often than you," Mr Obama replied. Last September, in a move seen in both countries as a snub of the Israeli premier, the White House said Mr Obama would not meet Mr Netanyahu during a US visit that month.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Israel's Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, believes that the two leaders will never bridge their differences.

"It's a clash of world views," Mr Gilboa said. Still, he added, personal chemistry "is significant but not decisive, because ... it's interests and policies that decide matters".

Washington is not, as it may appear to Palestinians and other Arabs, totally under Israel's thumb.

In 1991, George HW Bush withheld US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) in loan guarantees from Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, over his alleged intransigence on Jewish settlements and peace efforts with the Palestinians. This contributed to Mr Shamir's loss of the premiership during the following year's parliamentary elections.

On balance, Bill Clinton's dealings with Israel when he was president were successful because of his exemplary political instincts, said Akiva Eldar, a former writer at Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Mr Clinton was known for cultivating an "I-feel-your-pain" image that was popular with Israel's public and put him on good terms with Israeli leaders - even if he did not think too fondly of them in private.

During his first stint as prime minister, Mr Netanyahu did not enjoy a reputation for trustworthiness among the diplomats who worked for Mr Clinton. Mr Netanyahu's sometimes high-handed tone drove the US president into a rage in 1996 when, after a particularly heated encounter, he fumed: "Who the [expletive deleted] does he think he is? Who's the [expletive deleted] superpower here?"

Mr Eldar said Mr Obama would always struggle to earn Israeli trust because of his Muslim middle name, Hussein. "But because Clinton reached out to the Israeli public to show he cares about them, he was able to get a lot more from Netanyahu than Obama ever did," he said.


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