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?

  • Jim Watson / AFP

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

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    Obama's family history has become deeply symbolic to his critics as well. Obama is the Christian son of an atheist father who had been raised a Muslim. But it was Obama's childhood years in Jakarta, where he and his mother lived with his Indonesian stepfather, that the President uses to describe the origins of his views on foreign policy. Arriving in 1967 at age 6, Obama lived in a house with no refrigerator and no flushing toilet, "ran the streets with the children of farmers, servants, tailors and clerks" and still bears on his arm a scar from a playing-field cut perfunctorily stitched up in a Jakarta hospital. That life among poor Muslims taught Obama two large lessons, according to his account of the period in his books. First, he learned that the world was "violent," "unpredictable" and "often cruel" and that survival depended not on higher principles but on "taking life on its own terms." Second, Obama lived in the kind of neighborhood from which, as he has noted before, many terrorists come. A top priority for winning the war against terrorism, he said, would be "drying up the rising well of support for extremism" in places like Indonesia — and the Middle East.

    Now at the height of their careers, Obama and Netanyahu are having difficulty transcending their differences. "Bibi feels the need to show he is a great Israeli patriot," says a senior Administration official, "whereas this President is a cold-blooded calculator of interest. He doesn't have time for that kind of stuff." In his previous term as Prime Minister, from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu thwarted Bill Clinton's efforts to advance the peace process. That left residual distrust among those officials who returned to the White House under Obama, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Clinton. Netanyahu's aides, for their part, distrust Obama's inexperience. "Whenever new people get into a complex situation, if they are people who are confident, they believe they can do things others can't," says a senior Israeli source. Burg thinks the two men are irreconcilable. "You cannot stitch together the world visions of Obama and Netanyahu," he says. "This is a clash of the psychological infrastructure."

    From their first, hastily arranged meeting, in a custodian's office at a Washington airport in March 2007, both men have tried to bridge their differences — Netanyahu engaging warmly; Obama cultivating their common bond, politics. When the two men met for a second time, in Jerusalem in July 2008, each had further reasons to make nice. Obama needed to reassure independent and Jewish voters spooked by his middle name and his association with Rev. Wright that he could be a strong friend to Israel. Netanyahu knew "he couldn't afford to have a bad relationship with another [U.S.] Administration," says someone who knows him well. Obama told Netanyahu he had introduced in the U.S. Senate an Iran divestment bill Netanyahu had promoted at their previous meeting. Obama said, "You know, Mr. Prime Minister, people attribute a lot more ideological baggage to us than we actually carry." Netanyahu said, "I agree with you completely."

    But "whatever peace was made that summer," says Kurtzer, "was clearly very, very shallow." When Obama and Netanyahu held their first meeting as President and Prime Minister on May 18, 2009, in Washington, Obama explained that to begin drying up the sources of Muslim extremism, he wanted to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Talks would provide hope to Palestinians, Obama argued, diminishing their motivation to attack Israel, and would undermine Islamic extremists abroad who use the confrontation as a recruiting tool. He asked Netanyahu to do something no other Israeli Prime Minister had done: stop the appropriation of Arab land in East Jerusalem by Jewish activists. Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as their capital, had made that a precondition for peace talks with Israel, but Netanyahu, who had formed his right-wing government six weeks earlier on a platform opposing Palestinian statehood, would have none of it. "We weren't even going there," recalls Oren. Days later, Netanyahu said, "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, a city reunified so as never again to be divided."

    On the spot, Netanyahu aides could feel the relationship going south. Nor did everyone in the U.S. think confronting Netanyahu over Jerusalem was a good idea. Obama's peace envoy, George Mitchell, argued that the demand could have a "counterproductive" impact by putting the hardest issue, Jerusalem, on the table before talks had even started, driving Netanyahu into a defensive, nationalist crouch. But Rahm Emanuel, who had volunteered in the Israel Defense Forces as a civilian mechanic during the first Gulf War, contended that if the U.S. didn't push Netanyahu "hard and clear and early" on Jerusalem, Netanyahu would never make concessions once negotiations got under way. It was fundamentally a disagreement over two "different views of how Bibi would react," says a senior Administration official. In the wake of the May 18 summit, the President held a meeting with a dozen or so of his closest advisers on Israeli-Palestinian issues, known as the "peace team," to figure out how to proceed. After hearing the arguments on both sides, Obama decided in favor of Emanuel's view.

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