The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours

Rupert Cornwell
Sunday 01 February 2015 01:00 GMT

Benjamin Netanyahu, one presumes, has a keen sense of history. Therefore, Israel’s Prime Minister might reflect on what happened when an earlier best friend of the United States overstepped the diplomatic bounds.

Back in 1793, at the height of the French revolution, Edmond Genêt arrived as the new French ambassador to the US, with instructions to get the country that France had helped to independence barely a decade earlier to take its side in the gathering conflict with Britain.

The self-styled “Citoyen Genêt”, however, went about his task too enthusiastically, scorning President George Washington’s declaration of American neutrality, and going over the head of the government to foment popular support for his cause. The result was a massive diplomatic crisis, in which even Washington’s foes, basically sympathetic to Genêt’s cause, rallied to the president’s support, and the ambassador came within an ace of being expelled.

History, as Mark Twain noted, doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. So skip forward 222 years. This time it’s not Israel’s ambassador but the country’s very leader who’s coming to Washington in March to inject himself directly into US politics and press for tougher US action to ward off a nuclear Iran. The result: another diplomatic crisis, this time between America and its one true friend in the Middle East.

It’s no secret that no love is lost between the current US President and Netanyahu. Indeed, open loathing might be a better term. Barack Obama’s six years in office have been marked by a succession of spats and snubs: from Israel’s announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem at the very moment Vice-President Biden was on a 2010 visit to plead for a settlement slowdown, to the time Obama walked out of a working dinner with Netanyahu, and the occasion in 2011 when the Prime Minister, answering reporters’ questions in the Oval Office, delivered his host a condescending lecture on Israeli history as Obama visibly seethed alongside him.

But the latest row, born of Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress on the menace of Iran, could take the biscuit. The ploy was cooked up by Boehner and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, with no word to the White House. Indeed, Dermer had a long meeting the day before with John Kerry, the Secretary of State, at which he didn’t breathe a word of it.

Not surprisingly, the White House was incandescent with rage, making clear Obama would not meet Netanyahu during the latter’s stay. Privately, one US official told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Netanyahu “spat in our face publicly”. Another anonymous official took the extraordinary step of criticising Dermer by name to The New York Times – forcing the White House to assure that despite everything, it was not seeking the ambassador’s recall.

Chutzpah, of course, has long been an occasional hallmark of Israeli dealings with the US. In part, such licence surely reflects the sometimes almost incestuous nature of relations between the two countries, exemplified by the Netanyahu/Dermer tandem.

My first exposure to the former was when I first arrived in Washington in 1991, during the Gulf War, and Netanyahu, then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, emerged as one of the voices of the conflict on CNN, speaking perfect English, perfectly attuned to his American audience. Dermer is even more of a hybrid, American born and raised, he served as a Republican political operative before moving to Israel in 1996. Only in 2005, when he was posted to the embassy as economic adviser, did he give up his US citizenship.

And maybe this intermingling of cultures fosters a belief that Israel, in its relationship with America, is a case apart – that it can get away with behaviour other countries cannot, because in the long run their respective interests always coincide. This time, though, it may have miscalculated.

Make no mistake: if Iran and its nuclear programme represent the toughest, most momentous foreign policy issue facing Obama during his two remaining years in power, it is also one in which Israel has a vital, indeed existential, interest, given Tehran’s vow to annihilate the Jewish state.

But the sheer size of the stakes – at worst a new Middle Eastern war beside which Iraq would pale – urges caution above all. Obama says that new Iran sanctions would scupper any chance of a deal, and Congress will not hold a vote until the end of March. Now, you can argue that this President is a soft touch. But that is surely for America’s own politicians to decide, without the input of an Israeli Prime Minister ginning up support ahead of the general election he faces on 17 March.

Normally, Netanyahu wouldn’t have the slightest problem on Capitol Hill, overwhelmingly supportive of the Israeli cause. Assuming the address goes ahead, it would be his third to Congress. On his last one, in May 2011, he received 29 standing ovations.

This time, however, the usual routine may not apply. Netanyahu will calculate that the dust will settle and the relationship will continue as always. And he’s right; the symmetry of interests between Israel and the US are too compelling, the ties too instinctive. But Obama will be President for two more years, and Americans are rallying round him: not just Democrats, obliged to choose between supporting one of their own in the White House and backing Netanyahu’s demand for immediate new sanctions, but many Republicans as well. Even Fox News disapproves of the planned speech.

This proves that even in a time of polarisation, political bipartisanship is not dead. Until now, unquestioning support for Israel was one thing on which everyone agreed. Now, they discover, they agree on something else – that no foreign leader should make a humiliating end-run around the president of the United States.

Edmond Genêt learnt that lesson in 1793. Netanyahu is learning it now.

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