The New White House Meme About Bibi: He Doesn’t Understand
In a look at the history of the tensions between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, The New York Times several days ago started with an interesting anecdote.
For President Obama, it was a day of celebration. He had just signed the most important domestic measure of his presidency, his health care program. So when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrived at the White House for a hastily arranged visit, it was likely not the main thing on his mind.
To White House officials, it was a show of respect to make time for Mr. Netanyahu on that day back in March 2010. But Mr. Netanyahu did not see it that way. He felt squeezed in, not accorded the rituals of such a visit. No photographers were invited to record the moment. “That wasn’t a good way to treat me,” he complained to an American afterward.
The tortured relationship between Barack and Bibi, as they call each other, has been a story of crossed signals, misunderstandings, slights perceived and real. Burdened by mistrust, divided by ideology, the leaders of the United States and Israel talked past each other for years until the rupture over Mr. Obama’s push for a nuclear agreement with Iran led to the spectacle of Mr. Netanyahu denouncing the president’s efforts before a joint meeting of Congress.
It’s interesting because this is not at all how I remembered it. I remember that the lack of attention to the meeting was perceived as an intentional slight of Netanyahu. A quick check of the contemporaneous reporting confirmed this.
(Later when describing the meeting the article says that the situation was “made worse by exaggerated stories of shabby behavior in Israeli news media.” I don’t know that exaggerations were necessary.)
Reuters: In a sign of lingering tensions, the Obama administration withheld from Netanyahu some of the usual trappings of a White House visit. Press coverage of the Oval Office talks was barred, and the leaders made no public statements afterward.
Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post (who was, in fact, quoted by Prof. Jacobson at the time): Finally, Obama has added more poison to a U.S.-Israeli relationship that already was at its lowest point in two decades. Tuesday night the White House refused to allow non-official photographers record the president’s meeting with Netanyahu; no statement was issued afterward. Netanyahu is being treated as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator, needed for strategic reasons but conspicuously held at arms length. That is something the rest of the world will be quick to notice and respond to. Just like the Palestinians, European governments cannot be more friendly to an Israeli leader than the United States.
New York Magazine: It was an ominous signal when the White House didn’t provide photos or briefings after the much-anticipated meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week. After Joe Biden was blindsided by a surprise Israeli announcement of a new East Jerusalem housing project a couple of weeks earlier, the Obama administration was clearly sending a message of extreme displeasure.
BBC: But the White House had no immediate comment on their content. In a break with convention, reporters were not invited to witness the pair shake hands at the start of their discussions. It was a pointed contrast with the traditional public welcome for Israeli leaders at the White House, the BBC’s Steve Kingstone in Washington reports.
New York Time editorial a few days later: Mr. Obama was right to demand that Mr. Netanyahu repair the damage. Details of their deliberately low-key White House meeting (no photos, no press, not even a joint statement afterward) have not been revealed. We hope Israel is being pressed to at least temporarily halt building in East Jerusalem as a sign of good faith. Jerusalem’s future must be decided in negotiations.
In none of these accounts, was there any mention of the signing of Obamacare, (which did take place earlier that day.) The “low-key” approach to the meeting between the leaders was reported as a deliberate attempt by the administration to signal its displeasure with Netanyahu. I saw no indication that the administration tried to fight that impression at the time.
My best guess is that the New York Times reporters were simply writing the administration’s revisionist account of the events in 2010, without doing the necessary due diligence to ensure that the information they were given was accurate.
Still the article is mostly well-reported covering both sides. There are a few significant omissions (this and this, for example), but the article tries very hard to make the case that any tension between Obama and Netanyahu is the result not of malice, but of Netanyahu misunderstanding Obama. Perhaps the clearest expression of this came in a a description of meetings between Obama and American-Jewish leaders:
In those meetings, Mr. Obama expressed distress. “He bore his soul about how much he cares about Israel,” Mr. Foxman said. “It was painful, hurtful. ‘I care about Israel, I love Israel.”‘ Why did Mr. Netanyahu not understand?
So yes, I think we have a new meme, Obama is pro-Israel but misunderstood. The question is why the administration is so sensitive right now.
I have an idea.
First consider where the Democratic party is nearly one year before the next presidential election.
As Aleister noted recently, the Democrats have lost 12 governorship, 69 House seats, 14 Senate seats and over 900 local legislative seats in 7 years under Obama. While Obama’s personal popularity hovers just a little below 50%, this represents a widespread rebuke to his governance. Remember, his two signal achievements, Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal were unpopular. As everyone sees increasing health insurance rates and the consequences of the nuclear deal are reported, voters will have reminders of schemes that were enabled by legislative manipulation lacking popular support.
The Sun-Sentinel reported on Saturday on the significance of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting:
The region is home to an estimated 500,000 Jewish residents — sizable enough to tip the results in the biggest swing state in the country. Florida awards 29 electoral votes, more than 10 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.
Changing the outcome “doesn’t require a majority shift,” said Steven Abrams, a county commissioner who was Palm Beach County chairman for Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign. “The Jewish vote only needs to change by a percent or two or three in order to make a difference in the outcome of the state.” …
“I have three words: Iran nuclear deal,” Abrams said, referring to the Obama administration’s controversial effort to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. “It’s one of President Obama’s major initiatives. It’s not a small policy. And it’s a very prominent policy for Jewish voters and many Jewish Democrats and many more Jewish independents are not enthralled by it, and those are targeted voters.”
To be sure the Sun-Sentinel quoted several Democrats saying otherwise, but the nuclear deal according to polling throughout the summer is extremely unpopular.
A Quinnipiac poll in August found that voters in the crucial swing states Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida opposed the deal by a ratio of greater than 2 to 1. And every time Iran arrests an American or stops cooperating with the terms of the nuclear deal, the deal will be in the news and everyone involved in making the deal will look worse. Even many of the senators who supported the deal and defied popular opinion to block a vote on the deal made persuasive cases about the dangers of the deal.
In terms of Jewish opinion, it’s fascinating that not a single Jewish federation backed the deal. Too many of them, for sure took no position, but none supported the deal. Aside from J-Street, not a single major Jewish organization backed the deal. (The question as to whether J-Street is primarily a Jewish organization is a different question.) Even the ADL, which is now headed by a former Obama staffer, Jonathan Greenblatt, opposed the deal. If nothing else, suggests a strong consensus in the organized Jewish community that the nuclear was a bad deal that endangers Israel.
This suggests that the nuclear deal has done tremendous political damage to the Democrats. And while much of the media is portraying Netanyahu’s D.C. visit as Netanyahu’s chance to mend fences, I think it’s been Obama’s.
So even if cynical in the extreme, the meme that Obama loves Israel but his love was misunderstood by Bibi makes perfect sense. It’s a way of tidying up the past and putting the best face on a contentious relationship.
It is also a pose one would expect the president to strike if he were trying to woo back Jewish voters who are concerned about the threats to Israel presented by the nuclear deal.
Although much of the media has portrayed Netanyahu’s trip to the United States as his bid to mend relations with the administration and more generally with Democrats, there is evidence that the opposite dynamic is in play.
In addition to Obama’s “misunderstood” meme, Jennifer Rubin observed that in the wake of the nuclear deal 16 Democratic senators – 14 of whom supported the deal – are “scrambling for cover” and urging Obama to extend and strengthen the “Memorandum of Understanding” governing the terms of American security assistance to Israel in the face of the Iranian threat. Democratic Whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer, who supported the nuclear deal, has released a letter calling on the United States and its partner to ensure that Iran is held accountable for any cheating.
Polling shows that despite the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, which Jonathan Tobin correctly characterizes as being exacerbated by Obama, bipartisan support for Israel is strong and growing. Obama and Congressional Democrats are quite aware of this.
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