Where did it go wrong?

Where did it go wrong?

Looking at the shattered Obama-Netanyahu relationship

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on May 20, 2011.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on May 20, 2011.

WASHINGTON — When David Axelrod, then a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, first learned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly had referred to him and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as “self-hating Jews,” he remembers feeling stung.

“For people to suggest that I would be anti-Israel or worse, anti-Semitic — it hurts,” Axelrod recalled of the 2009 episode.

Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who was Obama’s Jewish community liaison in the 2008 and 2012 elections, remembers his own oh-no moment with Netanyahu.

It was in May 2011, when Netanyahu, irritated by Obama’s call for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on the 1967 lines, decided to use an Oval Office photo opportunity to lecture Obama publicly on Middle East history.

“I was embarrassed, as an American, that an American president is forced to sit and listen to a reciting of a point of view,” Wexler said. “Had Prime Minister Netanyahu been the prime minister of probably any other nation on earth, the president would have gotten out of his chair and walked away.”

The interviews with Axelrod and Wexler are part of a series of recent conversations with top figures in the Obama camp, including the president himself, that offer new details about the breakdown in the relationship between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister — and lay bare just how troubled that relationship has become.

The interviews were conducted by Ilana Dayan, who hosts the newsmagazine show “Uvda,” Israel’s version of “60 Minutes,” and were organized in part by JTA, which was present for most of the interviews. The first segment aired Monday on Israel’s Channel Two; the second, consisting of the interview with Obama, was scheduled for Tuesday evening.

The “Uvda” interviews included few Netanyahu defenders, and the program was devoted mostly to criticism of Netanyahu’s approach to U.S.-Israel relations. The material cited in this story includes both remarks that aired on the program and parts of the interviews that did not make it into the broadcast.

“The trust is gone on both sides; there’s too much water under the bridge between those two leaders now,” said interviewee Martin Indyk, who served as the administration’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace in 2013 and 2014.

Indyk, now a vice president at the Brookings Institution, said Netanyahu suffers similar dysfunctional relationships with other world leaders, citing tensions between Netanyahu and European leaders otherwise seen as Israel-friendly.

“It’s that mutual lack of trust which has poisoned the relationships,” Indyk said.

Indyk did not lay all the blame on Netanyahu, saying Obama committed the original sin by leaving Israel out of his first trip to the Middle East as president, when he visited Cairo and Saudi Arabia in June 2009.

“He reached out to the Arab and Muslim world and then he didn’t go to Israel. That was the original miscalculation,” Indyk said. “He lost them there and he never got them back. It sent a message that he didn’t like them that much, that he wanted to put some distance between the United States and Israel.”

For their part, Israeli government officials say Netanyahu’s stance toward Obama is all about policy, not personality, and that his No. 1 concern is ensuring Israel’s security — even if it means ruffling the president’s feathers. They say Netanyahu will not hold back about expressing his concerns with U.S. policies that he believes do not account for the brutal realities of the Middle East. That is particularly true of the looming deal with Iran, which Netanyahu says will leave Israel’s most strident enemy on the threshold of a nuclear weapon.

“The bottom line is that the Obama administration believes that the deal they are currently negotiating with Iran blocks Iran’s path to the bomb,” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in a May 15 appearance at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Israel believes that this deal paves Iran’s path to the bomb.”

In his interview with “Uvda,” Obama said, “The best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable tough agreement. A military solution will not fix it, even if the United States participates.”

He added, “I can say to the Israeli people: I understand your concerns and I understand your fears.”

Indyk said Obama feels hurt by the way he is portrayed in Israel.

“He’s deeply offended by the notion that he’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic,” Indyk said. “He’s hurt by it now. It’s finally got to him, the ingratitude of Israelis to this president.”

Other interviewees included media personalities such as Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic and David Remnick of the New Yorker; U.S.-Israeli businessman Haim Saban, an Obama confidant; Alan Solow, a top Chicago backer of Obama since the 1990s, when he chaired the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the powerful U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, and Netanyahu confidant Dore Gold, who was recently named the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Saban described the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama as like “oil and water” and said the crisis in relations is not in the future; it is here already. In a recent private meeting with the president, Saban noted, Obama described the Palestinians as “oppressed people in occupied territories.”

JTA Wire Service