The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Another perspective on the origins of the mutual Obama-Netanyahu disdain


Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy has an interesting column today on the roots of why Obama and Netanyahu dislike each other so much. The piece's conclusions primarily reflect the way Obama and his liberal (including liberal Jewish) supporters see the matter: they (Obama and other liberals) are enlightened humanitarians who temper support for Israel with distaste for Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Netanyahu, by contrast, is a mean right-wing nationalist who doesn't care about "social justice." This reaches a certain level of absurdity in McCoy's quote of Peter Beinart, "The reason [for Netanyahu's dislike of Obama] is simple: Obama reminds Netanyahu of what Netanyahu doesn't like about Jews … their belief that they carried a moral message to the world."

Right. Netanyahu gets up every morning and curses Obama for carrying a moral message to the world, just like the Jews. You have to have a very special sort of myopia to believe that.

I thought this was an opportune time to repost some related thoughts of mine from October, when I explained the Obama Administration's contribution to the ongoing tensions between the two governments.

I think the underlying dynamic here reflects not just the general antipathy the Obama and Netanyahu administrations have for each other, but the continuing fallout from the Obama Administration's initial gross misreading of the Israeli political scene.

Very succinctly, the Obama Administration came in to office thinking it could either force Netanyahu to make concessions, or force his government to fall. Both the Shamir and the first Netanyahu governments made concessions and ultimately got tossed out by the voters after tensions rose with the U.S., so this was not a completely unreasonable assumption.

However, Obama and his advisors missed several contrary factors. The Israeli public never liked Obama, never trusted him due to his well-known associations with various anti-Israel leftists such as Rashid Khalidi. Israelis' impressions were solidified by major blunders made by the Obama Administration, which did not get much attention in the U.S., but did in Israel.

First, the Obama Administration informed the Israeli government that written assurances given to it by the Bush Administration about U.S. policy, given in response to prior Israeli concessions, were null and void. One of those assurances was that Israel would keep major settlement blocs in any peace deal, an assurance that ran counter to Obama's first major initiative, a total settlement freeze. Undermining the promises of a president who was very popular in Israel, and making it clear that assurances from American governments have a very short expiration date, was not a way to win over Israeli public opinion.

Second, Obama went to Cairo in 2009, and not only didn't visit Israel during his trip, but presented a narrative that Obama thought was sympathetic to Israel in that it invoked the Holocaust as showing the need for a Jewish state, but hit Israeli ears as adopting the Arab narrative that Jews are not indigenous to the area, but were only given a state in the Middle East to compensate for European Christian crimes.

The very popular (in Israel) Bill Clinton confronting an only mildly popular Netanyahu in 1998 played very differently in Israel than a very unpopular Obama confronting a popular Netanyahu over the last several years. And unlike in the Bush I and Clinton years, many in Congress vocally favored Netanyahu's position, giving the president even less leverage.

I think the Obama Administration assumed Israelis that even if Israelis didn't swoon over Obama as much of the rest of the world did back in 2009, given Obama's close ties to and huge support within the American Jewish community Israelis would presume good will, and that Obama therefore did not need to schmooze the Israeli public. These assumptions proved wildly incorrect.

The Obama Administration also seemed to be caught off-guard by the fact that since the late 1990s, with one Intifada, one war in Lebanon, and one war in Gaza under their belts, all following previous Israeli withdrawals, Israeli public opinion had hardened against unilateral concessions, even when backed by the United States. (Note also that Netanyahu ultimately did agree to temporary settlement freeze, but Abbas then refused to negotiate until the last minute, and yet the Administration wasn't nearly as critical of Abbas as of Netanyahu. Israelis noticed.)

Finally, there have been comments from Administration officials showing that suggest a very shallow understanding of Israeli politics. The most telling such comment is when an Obama Administration official in 2012 [actually 2009] made the nonsensical assertion that Netanyahu is "essentially a Republican." Charitably, this means that at least some in the Administration think about Netanyahu as a political enemy, which, moreover, is consistent with a remark made by Obama to Jewish leaders in 2008, to the effect that being pro-Israel doesn't mean being pro-Likud, which happens to be Netanyahu's party. Uncharitably, it means that the nuances of Israeli politics, even the fact that you absolutely can't coherently map Israeli politics onto American political divisions, are completely lost on them.

One major commonality between my account and McCoy's is that Obama associates Jews and politics with the liberal Jews who he's been close to since the start of his political career. But in my view, this makes him believe that he "owns" the Jewish vote. The fact that many of Netanayahu's American supporters (like Sheldon Adelson) have also been Obama opponents should have taught Obama and his advisors that the American Jewish community is more diverse and less down-the-line liberal than a career in liberal Democratic politics (not to mention Obama's 78% of the 2008 Jewish vote) might lead one to believe. Instead, it seems to have led to paranoid fantasies that Netanyahu was pulling the strings of American Jewish donors and political activists who would otherwise naturally support Obama.