President Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are in the midst of yet another public conflict.
Earlier this week, the Israeli prime minister announced that he was cancelling a planned trip to the US because of the limited window in which it would have been possible for him to meet with Obama.
Netanyahu was supposed to address the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, Obama leaves for a historic visit to Cuba on March 18.
Neither side disputes that a meeting could have taken place prior to Obama’s departure to Cuba. Instead, the Israeli side apparently decided that it wasn’t interested in a meeting.
In past disputes, each side at least had a clear motivation for not wanting to talk. Obama didn’t meet with Netanyahu during the trip to the US.
That trip included the prime minister’s controversial March 2015 speech to a joint session of Congress urging opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. It was perhaps an obvious decision, given Netanyahu’s use of a Republican-controlled legislature to speak out against one of the president’s top priorities.
Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama has soured over a range of issues. There is the Iran deal. There is Israeli settlement activity beyond the ceasefire lines determined after the 1948 Middle East War. And there is Netanyahu’s alleged use of racially divisive rhetoric during the stretch run of Israel’s 2015 election campaign.
At the same time, the relationship has shown recent evidence of stabilizing — perhaps even recovering.
Netanyahu and Obama met at the White House last November, in what was seen as a successful attempt to publicly patch up the sides’ differences after a protracted debate over the Iran deal. And there are some relatively urgent reasons Netanyahu should want to meet Obama in the coming weeks.
Israel and the US are currently negotiating a memorandum of understanding that will help determine the next decade of US military assistance to the country.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama wants to take one more shot at advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process before he leaves office, an effort that The Journal reported could include the US endorsement of a United Nations Security Council resolution outlining a final-status outcome to the conflict.
From Israel’s perspective, such a move would unacceptably coerce concessions outside the context of direct negotiations with the Palestinians. A meeting with Obama later this month would have been a crucial first step in staving off such a worst-case scenario.
Instead, the sides are mired in one of the strangest episodes of the entire Obama-Netanyahu saga — one that has no apparent precedent.
“There is no public record of an Israeli prime minister ever previously rejecting an invite to meet a president at the White House,” writes Raphael Ahern of The Times of Israel. “And it is so bizarre as to leave even veteran analysts of the often-fraught bilateral relationship flabbergasted.”
It’s entirely possible that the meeting was canceled over something as innocent as a scheduling conflict — albeit one that played out in unfortunately public fashion.
During a Tuesday press conference, White House press secretary Josh Earnest emphasised that the meeting’s cancellation would have no effect on the state of relations between the two allies. But he said that it would have been “just good manners” for the Israelis to have informed the White House of Netanyahu’s change in plans rather than airing them in the media first.
Netanyahu hasn’t proven quite this tactless in his recent diplomatic outreach.
In September, Israel reached an understanding with Russia that deconflicted the country’s aircraft over Syria while granting Israel continued freedom of operation over its northern neighbour — something that allowed for the December bombing in Damascus that killed high-level Hezbollah operative Samir Kuntar.
ISIS and its aligned forces have been largely kept away from the Syrian-Israeli border, arguably the result of careful Israeli policy regarding the Syrian civil war. And in December, Israel reached a “preliminary agreement” with Turkey that paves the way for the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Netanyahu’s inattention in Israel’s relations with the US might show that Israel’s priorities simply lie elsewhere at the moment. After years of regional turmoil and the possible changes brought on by the Iran nuclear deal, the Israeli prime minister perhaps just can’t be bothered to manage his relationship with the country’s top foreign ally.
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