Obama-Netanyahu relations never promised happily-ever-after

A file photo of US President Barack Obama (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

A file photo of US President Barack Obama (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

WASHINGTON (AP) — This was never happily-ever-after waiting to happen.

When President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office early in 2009, there were plenty of reasons to expect their relationship would be difficult.

The cerebral president and the brash prime minister have stark differences in personality, politics and world view.

Still, few could have predicted the downward spiral of backbiting, lecturing and outright name-calling that has occurred.

Start with the differences between Obama and Netanyahu, add in disagreements over Iran’s nuclear program, a Republican-led Congress trying to assert itself and the coming Israeli elections, and it becomes “the perfect storm of potential broken crockery in the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” says the Wilson Center’s Aaron Miller, who was a Mideast adviser and negotiator for Republican and Democratic administrations.

A look at how the dynamic between Obama and Netanyahu has played out over the years.

A WARY START, March 2009

Netanyahu takes office just months after Obama, and a clash of ideas and chemistry is immediately evident. The hawkish prime minister aims to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and says a peace agreement with Palestinians is impossible in the current environment. Obama pledges to “aggressively” seek a Mideast peace deal and sends an envoy critical of Israeli settlement-building. Netanyahu also takes a hard line on ensuring that Iran, Israel’s enemy, does not obtain nuclear weapons; Obama favors talking with Tehran. Still, both sides put up a show of trying to make this forced marriage work. When Obama is asked how Netanyahu’s ascension affects prospects for establishing separate Israeli and Palestinian states, he says, “It’s not easier than it was, but I think it’s just as necessary.”


It doesn’t take long for frictions to increase. During a visit to Cairo, Obama delivers a much-anticipated speech about U.S. relations with the Muslim world in which he calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state and says the U.S. “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. … It is time for these settlements to stop.” This is a nonstarter for Israel, which puts out a carefully worded response leaving out any reference to settlements or other issues where the two countries are at odds. “Obama came out very strong, very fast, very hard, talking about a freeze,” says Miller. “There was no way that any American president was going to be able to impose a freeze, nor was any Israeli prime minister going to accept one.”


Netanyahu takes none too kindly to Obama’s suggestion of using Israel’s 1967 boundaries as the basis for restarting stalled peace talks. Seated next to Obama in the Oval Office, with journalists listening in, Netanyahu delivers a long dissertation on why this won’t happen, calling the idea “indefensible.” The strain is evident as Obama sits by, his chin cupped in his hand. But the president tries to minimize the rift, saying, “Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language. That’s going to happen between friends.”


There’s no papering over blunt private remarks accidentally captured on a live mic. During a meeting of world leaders in southern France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is overheard telling Obama, “Netanyahu, I can’t stand him. He’s a liar.” Far from disagreeing, Obama replies: “You are sick of him, but I have to work with him every day.”

A NEW SUITOR, July 2012

Just months out from the U.S. presidential election, Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, visits Israel and is warmly welcomed by Netanyahu, who says he’s staying neutral in the presidential race. Still, Netanyahu says he welcomes Romney’s tougher approach to the Iran nuclear threat, and says that sanctions and diplomacy, pushed by Obama, “so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota.”

NO TIME, September 2012

Obama turns down a request to meet with Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visits the U.S. to attend the U.N. General Assembly. The White House cites a tight schedule for the president.

MAKING NICE, March 2013

The re-elected Obama visits Israel for talks with Netanyahu aimed at laying the groundwork for a new Mideast peace push. Obama and Netanyahu together examine the ancient texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls as the president tries to erase perceptions that he sees the Holocaust, not historical ties to the region, as the rationale for the existence of the Jewish state. Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to receive Israel’s highest civilian honor when he is awarded the Medal of Distinction during a lavish dinner. The two leaders work at pulling off the easy banter of friends – just Bibi and Barack.

A CHILL IN THE AIR, March 2014

The mood is cooler when Netanyahu visits Obama in the Oval Office on a snowy day a year later. With the peace process flagging, Obama tells Netanyahu that “tough decisions” are needed to move forward on talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu begs to differ. “Israel has been doing its part,” he says, “And, I regret to say, the Palestinians have not.”


Both sides hurl increasingly tough words, with Netanyahu complaining that recent White House criticism of Israeli settlement construction goes “against American values.” The divide over how to counter Iran’s nuclear program widens into a chasm. When an unidentified U.S. official is quoted using barnyard terms to deride Netanyahu as cowardly and recalcitrant, the report reverberates across Israel. The State Department calls the anonymous remarks inappropriate, but there are growing concerns of a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu says he’s been attacked by the U.S. simply for defending Israel.

GOING NUCLEAR, January-March 2015

Tensions come to a head when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, arranges – without notifying the White House – for Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress in March to speak out against the potential nuclear deal. The White House complains of a breach of protocol and says Obama won’t meet Netanyahu while he’s in town. A number of congressional Democrats plan to sit out the speech. An unrepentant Netanyahu, just weeks away from Israeli elections, says he’ll come anyway. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, in unusually harsh words, says Tuesday’s planned speech has “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate. I think it’s destructive of the fabric of the relationship.”

By The Associated Press