Obama, Netanyahu on Collision Course 02/28 14:32
For six years, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu have been on a collision course over how to halt Iran's nuclear
ambitions, a high-stakes endeavor both men see as a centerpiece of their
WASHINGTON (AP) -- For six years, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been on a collision course over how to halt
Iran's nuclear ambitions, a high-stakes endeavor both men see as a centerpiece
of their legacies.
The coming weeks will put the relationship between their countries, which
otherwise remain stalwart allies, to one of its toughest tests.
Netanyahu is bound for Washington for an address to Congress on Tuesday
aimed squarely at derailing Obama's cherished bid for a diplomatic deal with
Tehran. At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry and other international
negotiators will be in Switzerland for talks with the Iranians, trying for a
framework agreement before a late March deadline.
In between are Israel's elections March 17, which have heightened the
political overtones of Netanyahu's visit to Washington.
The prime minister is speaking to Congress at the request of Republicans.
His visit was coordinated without the Obama administration's knowledge,
deepening tensions between two leaders who have never shown much affection for
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street,
said Netanyahu was "crossing some lines that haven't been crossed before and is
putting Israel into the partisan crossfire in a way it has not been before."
But the largest pro-Israel lobby in the U.S., the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee, has tried to play down the partisanship.
"AIPAC welcomes the prime minister's speech to Congress and we believe that
this is a very important address," spokesman Marshall Wittmann said. "We have
been actively encouraging senators and representatives to attend and we have
received an overwhelmingly positive response from both sides of the aisle."
Nearly a dozen Democratic lawmakers plan to sit out Netanyahu's speech,
calling it an affront to the president.
Stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb has become a defining challenge
for both Obama and Netanyahu, yet one they have approached far differently.
For Obama, getting Iran to verifiably prove it is not pursuing nuclear
weapons would be a bright spot in a foreign policy arena in which numerous
outcomes are uncertain and would validate his early political promise to
negotiate with Iran without conditions.
Netanyahu considers unacceptable any deal with Iran that doesn't end its
nuclear program entirely and opposes the diplomatic pursuit as one that
minimizes what he considers an existential threat to Israel.
Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce
energy for civilian use.
"Through scaremongering, falsification, propaganda and creating a false
atmosphere even inside other countries, (Israel) is attempting to prevent
peace," Iran's top nuclear negotiator said Saturday in Tehran. "I believe that
these attempts are in vain and should not impede reaching a (nuclear)
agreement," said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
U.S. and Iranian officials reported progress in the latest talks on a deal
that would freeze Tehran's nuclear program for 10 years, but allow it to slowly
ramp up in the final years of the accord.
Obama has refused to meet Netanyahu during his visit, with the White House
citing its policy of not meeting with foreign leaders soon before their
elections. Vice President Joe Biden and Kerry will both be out of the country
on trips announced only after Netanyahu accepted the GOP offer to speak on
The prime minister is scheduled to speak Monday at AIPAC's annual policy
conference. The Obama administration will be represented at the event by U.N.
Ambassador Samantha Power and national security adviser Susan Rice, who
criticized Netanyahu's plans to address Congress as "destructive" to the
The Iran dispute has spotlighted rifts in a relationship that has been
frosty from the start. Obama and Netanyahu lack any personal chemistry, leaving
them with virtually no reservoir of goodwill to get them through their policy
Within months of taking office, Obama irritated Israel when, in an address
to the Arab world, he challenged the legitimacy of Jewish settlements on
Palestinian-claimed land and cited the Holocaust as the justification for
Israel's existence, not any historical Jewish tie to the land.
The White House was furious when Netanyahu's government defied Obama and
announced plans to construct new housing units in East Jerusalem while Biden
was visiting Israel in 2010. Additional housing plans that year upended U.S.
efforts to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The tension between Obama and Netanyahu was laid bare in an unusually public
manner during an Oval Office meeting in 2011. In front of a crowd of
journalists, the prime minister lectured Obama at length on Israel's history
and dismissed the president's conditions for restarting peace talks.
Later that year, a microphone caught Obama telling his then-French
counterpart in a private conversation that while he may be fed up with
Netanyahu, "You are sick of him, but I have to work with him every day."
Despite suspecting that Netanyahu was cheering for his rival in the 2012
presidential campaign, Obama tried to reset relations with the prime minister
after his re-election. He made his first trip as president to Israel and the
two leaders went to great lengths to put on a happy front, referring to each
other by their first names and touring some of the region's holy sites together.
The healing period was to be short-lived.
Another attempt at Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed. Israeli
officials were withering in their criticism of Kerry, who had shepherded the
talks, with the country's defense minister calling him "obsessive" and
"messianic." The Obama administration returned the favor last summer with its
own unusually unsparing criticism of Israel for causing civilian deaths when
war broke out in Gaza.
The U.S. and Israel have hit rocky patches before.
The settlement issue has been a persistent thorn in relations, compounded by
profound unhappiness in Washington over Israeli military operations in the
Sinai, Iraq and Lebanon during the Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush
administrations that led those presidents to take or consider direct punitive
measures. Yet through it all, the United States has remained Israel's prime
benefactor, providing it with $3 billion a year in assistance and defending it
from criticism at the United Nations and elsewhere.
"We have brought relations back in the past and we will do it again now
because at the end of the day they are based on mutual interests," said Dore
Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and informal adviser to
Netanyahu. "The interests of Israel and the U.S. are similar and sometime
identical and I think that is what will determine in the end and not feelings
of one kind or another."