Their testy meeting over Iran’s nuclear ambitions showed how far the Palestinian question has dropped down the agenda
At least they looked each other in the eye this time. But there was no escaping the sense that once again Israel’s prime minister was playing schoolmaster to the US president’s recalcitrant pupil.
Binyamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House to pour forth the routine thanks for America’s faithful support, although Barack Obama might have flinched at the Israeli leader’s reference to Iran’s view of the relationship: “To them, you’re the great Satan, we’re the little Satan.”
But then Netanyahu got to the heart of the matter.
He had looked a little tense, his hands firmly lodged on his splayed legs, as Obama welcomed him to the Oval office. There was still the chilliness that has characterised the relationship since they first met as leaders three years ago and the president mistakenly thought he could rail-road Netanyahu into halting the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank – a major obstacle to serious peace talks with the Palestinians.
Last year, Netanyahu established who was really in charge when he humiliated Obama by lecturing him in public at the White House on the Holocaust and Israel’s history. They could barely look at each other.
This time though there’s the threat of war to worry about, so they decided to try to make nice in public.
Obama again assured Netanyahu that the Jewish state can rely on him.
“The United States will always have Israel’s back,” he said for the third time in recent days.
Netanyahu thanked the president for his speech to the US’s pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), on Sunday. Obama had demanded an end to the “loose talk of war” and “bluster” against Iran – a clear reference to the noise out of Netanyahu’s government.
He called for time for sanctions to dissuade Tehran from pursuing a nuclear bomb, if that’s what it’s doing.
Netanyahu ignored all that. The bit he honed in on was Obama’s statement that Israel has the right to decide what is best for its own security. The tone in the Oval office changed. Netanyahu put on his grave voice. The teacher focused on the disruptive schoolboy who looked on without giving away he’d heard this all many times before.
“Israel must have the ability, always, to defend itself, by itself against any threat,” he said. “When it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the sovereign right to make its own decisions.”
So it was perfectly clear then. Netanyahu would like the world to think he is ready to bomb Iran. Obama would like the world to think he’s opposed to the idea. Between those two positions the leaders of that other special relationship – the real one – appear to have reached an accommodation: Israel will attack Iran if it must but it should stop talking about it. Whether it will come to that is a matter of speculation as intense as Iran’s alleged effort to build a nuclear bomb.
Certainly there’s opposition in America. The Israelis arrived to be confronted by a full-page advert in the Washington Post placed by retired US generals and intelligence officers declaring Mr President: Say No to War of Choice with Iran.
Much of the public appears to agree. A Pew Research poll on Monday said 51% of Americans want the US to stay neutral if Israel attacks Iran.
Yet it was clear from the encounter that Netanyahu has already scored a major victory. Where once meetings of the two were dominated by talk about the Palestinians, this time there was but the briefest of mentions by Obama and none by Netanyahu.
Three years ago, Obama was promising to shift the weight of US power to drive Israel towards a deal with the Palestinians whether it really wants one or not. But the president of hope has been confronted with the prime minister of doom. Netanyahu sees only threats. The Arab Spring is a menace — more like an Arab Winter. Hamas is seeping into the Palestinian power structure. And now there’s Iran.
Israel’s threat of another war has at least saved Netanyahu from having to talk to Obama about his least favourite subject; the future of a people who have yet to be given the right to make their own decisions.
from Chris McGreal