Bibi and Barack: Can They Bridge the Gap?

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu — two leaders with different histories — see the world through vastly different lenses. Can they bridge the gap for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

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Jim Watson / AFP

Barack Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting in the White House in May 2009.

Story updated and correction appended June 1

The relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu hit rock bottom in the late afternoon of Friday, March 12, 2010, Jerusalem time. That is when Netanyahu took a call from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Upset at Israel's announcement three days earlier of a massive expansion of housing units in occupied East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden arrived for a goodwill visit, Obama had asked Clinton to call Netanyahu and dress him down. The President was "deeply offended and hurt" by what had happened, Clinton told Netanyahu, according to senior Israeli and American officials familiar with the call. Clinton laid out a series of steps Netanyahu needed to take to repair the damage. Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, described the call as a "slap in the face." "It was the lowest point" in the relationship between the two men, says a senior Israeli official.

Obama and Netanyahu are two profoundly different politicians with divergent personalities and worldviews, and over the course of three years, six face-to-face meetings and frequent phone calls, their relationship has never been a natural one. The two men had been scheduled to meet Tuesday June 1 for a seventh time in Washington at Obama's invitation to again try to overcome their differences, when the deadly Israeli raid of a flotilla of Gaza-bound aid ships early Monday forced Netanyahu to return home early, canceling the meeting. As the White House voiced "deep regret" over the deaths and Israel defended its actions, the incident showed how hard a rapprochement between two politicians with such different outlooks and instincts will be. Obama, a former professor, is impassive and pragmatic; Netanyahu, a former commando, is macho and proud. Obama reaches out to rivals; Netanyahu confronts them. Outsiders, some with their own agendas, have made things worse. Obama Administration officials suspect Netanyahu of intentionally undermining U.S. diplomatic initiatives. Prominent Israelis, including Netanyahu's brother-in-law, publicly accuse Obama of anti-Semitism, citing his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his father's Muslim background.

This personal fault line has strategic implications: the Obama-Netanyahu relationship has the capacity to affect the security of the U.S., the Middle East and the world. Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said privately after Clinton's March 12 call that the U.S. and Israel were in their greatest crisis of the past 30 years. Jordan's King Abdullah recently said there could be war in the region this summer if the U.S. doesn't move Israel and the Palestinians toward talks. Most dangerous is Iran's nuclear march, which Netanyahu says he will stop by force if necessary, potentially drawing the U.S. into a wider conflict.

Both men realize what is at stake and are struggling to separate their deep disagreements over the peace process from their common interests. The U.S. remains committed to Israel's security, which Obama has called "sacrosanct," and the countries' military alliance is perhaps tighter than ever. But dozens of interviews with the two leaders' closest advisers, some speaking only on condition of anonymity, reveal the relationship's limits and how the wedge of Jerusalem is deepening the divide between them. Some observers question whether they can communicate should a crisis arise. "Leaders matter," says Daniel Kurtzer, who was an early campaign adviser to Obama and worked with Netanyahu as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. "The two of them are going to define what we do on the most critical issues."

Two Worlds Collide
Netanyahu is a man with a compelling family history. His older brother led the 1976 raid on Entebbe and was killed, becoming a national hero. His father Benzion, 100, was among the intellectual leaders of what is known as revisionist Zionism, a movement whose members first sought to create a Jewish state in British-controlled Palestine in the 1930s, pushed to expand it into East Jerusalem and the West Bank and formed the core of what would later become the Likud Party. In Tel Aviv in 1949, a year after Israel's founding, Benjamin "was born into the ideological wing of the Likud," says a Netanyahu staffer. "It's deeply ingrained." His politics are determined by this history. "Netanyahu thinks of a direct line from Moses down to him — at the minimum, he has to be a guardian [of the Jewish state]," says his sometime political opponent, former Labor Party member and speaker of the Knesset Avrum Burg. Avishai Margalit, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jesey, says, "The revisionists put tremendous weight on symbols and declarations. Netanyahu thinks that the minute he stops making symbolic gestures, that's the end of the Israeli cause."

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