Bibi and Barack: A History in Snubs

by Thomas Stackpole | September 17, 2012

When the media reported last week that President Obama had turned down a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—which was followed, according to the New York Times, by a reverse-snub when Bibi insisted that he hadn’t also been denied a meeting in Washington, because he never even wanted one in the first place—it was only the latest uncomfortable chapter in the two leaders’ cringing pseudo-courtship. For four years, their encounters have been playing out with all the grace of a star-crossed, seventh-grade romance. To catch you up, we here at TNR compiled a brief history, in snub form, of the Bibi-Barack relationship:

The Original Snub: 
The relationship has pretty rocky from the start. In the spring of 2009, while Barack was still in the glowing honeymoon phase of his presidency, he called on Israel to place an immediate halt on settlement construction before a meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. This was a bit of a shift from the preceding administration, which had diplomatically dubbed the settlements “unhelpful.” To which Bibi reportedly said something to the effect of, “Really dude? Seriously? Not a chance. And by the way, not cool for you to ask, bro. Not cool.” 

The “Thanks for Coming All This Way” Snub: 
Like any well-delivered diplomatic “screw you,” this was a snub in (at least) two acts. Two weeks for Netanyahu’s 2010 Oval Office meeting, Biden went to Israel to lay the groundwork for reopening the peace process and reaffirm the United States’ “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.” On the second day of his trip, he was blindsided by the announcement of a new expansion of settlements—a point of stark contention between the U.S. and Israel—that Biden took as an affront to his goodwill mission. Not only did he condemn the timing and content of the announcement, he showed up an hour and a half late to dinner with Netanyahu that night, just to drive the point home. 

The “Would You Mind Waiting” Snub: 
How did Obama handle the 2010 tête-à-têtemeant to repair frayed relations between the U.S. and Israel? Somewhere along the lines of: “Oh, great, you’re here! That’s wonderful. The thing is, dinner is almost ready. Would you mind waiting while I eat with Michele and the girls? I’ll be an hour, max. No more than an hour-and-a-half. Promise. And I’ll see if an aide can scrounge up some oyster crackers somewhere to tide you over. Back in a jiffy!” Only he left a list of 13 demands before walking out. 

The “I Didn’t Hear a Word You Just Said” Snub: 
At their Oval Office sit-down in 2011, Bibi used the opportunity to look Obama in the eyes, open his heart, and reject everything that the president had laid out in public comments the day before. What had Obama said? Employing the “Let Me Tell You How This Is About to Go Down” Snub, Obama had explained that the pre-1967 borders should be the baseline for renewed peace talks—a subtle but obviously important evolution of the U.S. stance.

The Imaginary Snub: 
One of the things that Obama has been taking heat over, often from Bibi’s longtime friend-cum-presidential contender Mitt Romney, is the supposed slight of not having visited Israel. (As Bill Keller noted, the two share not only a past, but a diplomatic gift for the light touch “of cattle on loco weed.”) In reality, most presidents, including George Bush, haven’t made the trek until their second term—which is probably exactly what Obama would plan on doing, if Bibi would just stop asking him to make ultimatums in the middle of his presidential campaign.

The most recent flare up, like its predecessors, is unlikely to push the U.S.-Israeli relationship over the brink into outright hostility. (Netanyahu has already walked back his comments demanding from Obama a “red line” on Iran’s nuclear program.) But if there’s little doubt that these two countries will maintain an alliance, it’s equally clear that their two political leaders, if given the chance, will continue to find ways to find new diplomatic lows. Given the way their love affair has gone so far, I wouldn’t count on them patching it up anytime soon.

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