Obama and Netanyahu: It's Complicated

Matt Vasilogambros

While President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have publicly said their bond is strong and their policy differences are not significant, several events over the president’s first term have come to define a complicated relationship.

“It’s no secret that it’s been tense, to say the least,” said Mitchell Bard, the executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. “Obama’s done everything but write on the sidewalk, ‘B.O. hates Bibi.’ ”

As the two leaders meet this week to discuss the critical issues of the region—including the Iranian nuclear program, the Syrian conflict, and prospects for a peace agreement with the Palestinians—experts say they will have to set aside their personal problems and put the last four years behind them.

Here is a look at some of the ups and mostly downs of their relationship:

The Cairo Speech 

Obama and Netanyahu got off to a bad start. In June 2009, early in Obama's first term, he traveled to the Middle East and delivered a major speech in Cairo aimed at reaching out to the Muslim world. In the speech, Obama also criticized the Israeli government over new construction in the Palestinian territories. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” he said.

After Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967, the Jewish state took control of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Over the years, thousands of Israelis have moved into those areas, but prospects for peace and and an eventual two-state solution are slim unless the Jewish state abandons some or all of those settlements, which is why the Obama administration emphasized the issue. 

In the speech, Obama also reaffirmed the bond between Israel and the United States. But it wasn’t just the content of the speech that sent a conflicting message to Israeli leaders. Israeli leaders were miffed that Obama decided not to stop in Israel during that trip, Bard said.

Biden’s Unpleasant Visit 

During Obama's first term, he and other officials put an emphasis on urging Israel to halt settlements. In late 2009, Netanyahu put in place a 10-month settlement freeze but declined to renew it when it came to an end. 

Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel in March 2010 to reassure the Israelis of the U.S. commitment to their security and the peace process. But within hours of his arrival, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new settlement housing units in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu tried to defuse the tension by saying the decision was made by the Interior ministry and that he too, was blindsided by the timing. Biden publicly criticized the announcement, saying it “runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.” The U.S. vice president also showed up 90 minutes late to dinner with Netanyahu that evening.

Obama Leaves a Meeting for Dinner With His Family 

Obama and Netanyahu met at the White House just days after Biden’s trip to Israel in 2010 and had a heated discussion over the future of peace talks with the Palestinians. Media reports said that Obama left the meeting to have dinner in the residence with his family, leaving the prime minister and his staff in the Roosevelt Room for over an hour. The president came back for a short meeting later in the evening. The incident was perceived in Israel as a snub but the White House insisted it was not. 

Netanyahu Lectures Obama on Israeli History 

During an official visit to the White House in May 2011, Netanyahu lecutured Obama on the Jewish state in front of reporters in the Oval Office. Sitting next to Obama, Netanyahu delivered a seven-minute statement that covered the history of the Jewish people and the suffering they had faced.

Around this time, Obama was still polling in the single digits among Israelis, many of whom viewed the U.S. president as less supportive of Israel than his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, had been. 

Obama Rejects Palestinian Statehood at the U.N. 

“It’s not clear if he saw the polls or saw the light,” said Bard, but toward the end of 2011 Obama changed his tone on Israel. Obama eventually dropped his public calls for Israel to halt settlements in the Palestinian territories. The United States also rejected a bid by Palestinians to seek statehood through the United Nations. 

Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly in November 2011, his 35-minute address wasn’t interrupted for applause once as he expressed his new views on Palestinian statehood. Netanyahu called the president’s new position “a badge of honor.”

Netanyahu (Effectively) Endorses Romney for President 

Netanyahu and Mitt Romney go way back to their time in a consulting firm in Boston over 30 years ago, a rapport that was apparent during the presidential election. Although Netanyahu stopped short of an endorsement of Romney's candidacy, his warm embrace of the Republican former governor led to speculation that he preferred him over Obama.

“I'm not going to be drawn into the American election,” Netanyahu said on NBC’s Meet the Press just days before the election. “And what's guiding my statements is not the American political calendar, but the Iranian nuclear calendar.”

After the two leaders won reelection, experts said there was hope of a restart in their relationship.

Obama Does Not Meet With Netanyahu on the Sidelines of U.N. Gathering

At last September’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, at the height of tensions with Iran and in the final stretch of the presidential campaign, Obama and Netanyahu failed to meet up in New York. Israeli officials decried it as a yet another snub, but the White House said the two leaders would be in New York on different days and their schedules did not permit the meeting.

The lack of a meeting put a spotlight on apparent daylight between Netanyahu and Obama over what actions by Iran might warrant a military action. During his U.N. speech, Netanyahu described the “red line” that Iran could not cross with its nuclear program. The Israeli prime minister said he viewed the red line as Iran acquiring the capability to build a nuclear bomb, while the United States described it as Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon or being on the verge of having one.

All photos by the AP