It was Netanyahu’s coalition partners that provoked the great contretemps of 2010 with the U.S.: the cold-cocking of Joe Biden. Arguably the administration’s staunchest Zionist and a longtime friend of Netanyahu’s—a signed photo of Biden from his Senate days sits on Bibi’s desk—the vice-president arrived in Israel that March to promote the “proximity” peace talks that the sides had just agreed to undertake. There he was ambushed with a surprise announcement by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the fundamentalist Shas Party, of the building of new settlement blocs in contested East Jerusalem. Netanyahu was apparently as blindsided as Biden was.
The Obamans were livid at Biden’s flagrant ill-treatment. Hillary Clinton administered a now-famous 43-minute telephonic blistering to Netanyahu, and, according to Jeffrey Goldberg on Bloomberg.com, Bob Gates “told several people that if he had been Biden, he would have returned to Washington immediately and told the prime minister to call Obama when he was serious about negotiations.”
Thirteen days later, Netanyahu traveled to Washington and met with Obama at the White House. The president expressed his anger about the Biden incident. Within days, media outlets around the world were filled with Israeli-sourced stories about Obama’s rudeness to Netanyahu: that there had been no photo op, no joint statement, and that 44 had walked out of their meeting and left Bibi stewing in a West Wing meeting room while the president had dinner with his family. Were the stories true? Obama’s people dispute the details. But the damage to his reputation with many American Jews had already been done; the “snub” to Netanyahu took its place atop the growing list of administration affronts to Israel.
It’s often said that Netanyahu has an exquisitely calibrated feel for American politics and great savvy in working its press corps. Both are true and both have helped him enormously in resisting the pressure brought to bear by Team Obama. But the administration has also sabotaged itself, in particular by frequently failing to speak with one voice to Israel.
Through much of 2009 and 2010, Obama’s people were divided over just how hard to lean on Netanyahu when it came to negotiating with the Palestinians. On one side were many central figures who favored the tough-love approach: Obama, Clinton, Mitchell, Emanuel. On the other were Dennis Ross, the president’s special assistant on the Middle East, and Tom Donilon, his national-security adviser. “The underlying argument of Dennis and Tom was that you’ll never get the Israelis to do anything by pushing them,” says one official. “The contrary argument is, there’s no evidence you’ll ever get them to do anything without pushing them.”
For Netanyahu, however, the internal division within the administration was a gift. Wary of Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod—Netanyahu was quoted in the Israeli press calling them “self-hating Jews,” though he later denied it—he turned to those in the White House who were more sympathetic. “What you had was Bibi doing this go-to-mommy, go-to-daddy thing,” says the same official. “Which meant there was never a real, effective, tough negotiation with Israel, because every time you tried to say something tough, he’d go to someone else who would tell him, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ”
Netanyahu’s penchant for forum shopping goes a long way toward explaining the bilateral conniption that erupted this past May. After briefly negotiating face-to-face last fall, the Israelis and the Palestinians were again at loggerheads. For weeks this spring, the administration debated internally how to modify U.S. policy in light of that breakdown as well as the dawning of the Arab Spring and the wave of instability engulfing the region.
With the new Republican Congress having invited Netanyahu to address a full joint session—making him only the fourth foreign leader (along with Yitzhak Rabin, Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill) to have been granted the privilege more than once—Obama was planning a major speech on the Middle East ahead of Bibi’s. The question was whether the president should lay out a framework for a two-state solution, including principles on borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. Clinton and Mitchell were in favor of including all four; Ross and Donilon were in favor of including none, and until a few days before the speech, it appeared that they would have their way. But in the end, Obama opted for two: principles on borders and security.
Everyone knew that the language on borders would stir up a hell of a fuss, though in truth there was nothing terribly controversial about what Obama said. The 1967 lines plus land swaps has been for decades the geographic template for any plausible two-state solution, and was employed (almost fruitfully) by Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat in 2000 and (again, almost fruitfully) by Bush, Ehud Olmert, and Abbas in 2008. The trouble was that its explicit embrace by Obama caught Netanyahu by surprise, almost certainly because Dennis Ross had assured him privately that it wouldn’t be in the speech.