The Netanyahu–Obama Relationship Is Not Going to Get Less Awkward Any Time Soon

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Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

A furious Benjamin Netanyahu was on the phone with Hillary Clinton yesterday morning objecting a sentence in President Obama's Middle East speech that was scheduled for later in the day. The line was this: "the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states." The "1967 lines" are borders established in 1949 which were erased during the Six Day War, when through swift military action Israel claimed the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank from Jordan. Netanyahu saw Obama's statement as a change from the policy era of George W. Bush, who said it was "unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." (It's not clear that there really is a dramatic change — negotiations have reportedly always been based on some form of those lines, and Obama's "mutually agreed swaps" indicates he doesn't think there should be a "full and complete return" either.) So Netanyahu fired off a nasty statement yesterday afternoon.

The Israeli prime minister "expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of American commitments made to Israel in 2004 which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress" when they meet today, he said. Netanyahu staunchly opposes giving Palestinians land in exchange for keeping Israeli settlements outside the 1967 borders in a final deal. Sounds like the meeting's going to be a little tense.

But Barack and Bibi have always had a strained personal relationship. Barack has shown more of a willingness to make demands of Israel than other recent presidents, and Netanyahu — in what some say is an effort to shore up his support at home — has shown a willingness to directly defy them. Remember back in March when, after Obama insisted Israel stop building settlements in Palestinian territory, Netanyahu announced new ones in East Jerusalem — while Joe Biden was in the country visiting? It was widely viewed as a slap in the face to the United States, and the U.S. snubbed Netanyahu accordingly in his next visit.

Of course, after that scuffle, the pair went out of their way to show they were still involved in a normal U.S.-Israel bromance. So you can probably expect that to happen again; terse, behind-closed-doors meetings, painfully awkward negotiations, and then a public show of love and affection. It's like a Hollywood marriage, basically, only instead of doing it for its career, Israel's doing it so that the United States will firmly reject a United Nations motion to recognize Palestine's statehood this fall.

Obama and Netanyahu Face a Turning Point [NYT]
Netanyahu Responds Icily to Obama Remarks [NYT]