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How Obama and Netanyahu developed a ‘special relationship’ from hell

PBS’s “Frontline” is premiering a documentary Tuesday examining Benjamin Netanyahu rise and his dealings with President Obama.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama shown in the Oval Office.
REUTERS/Jim Young

PBS’s “Frontline” is premiering a new documentary Tuesday evening called “Netanyahu at War,” which they kindly allowed me to preview. It’s two hours long and starts with Benjamin Netanyahu’s rise, from a youth spent — from the age of seven — in America with his very hard-line right-wing Zionist father — to his service in the Israeli military, to his emergence as the Israeli right’s media spokesperson in the United States. Next he rises to the leadership of Israel’s rightist Likud Party and prime minister (first from 1996-99, and then, after a fall from power, for a second, longer run from 2009 to the present). To those who follow Israeli politics and history, it’s familiar stuff, although well-told and a good refresher course.

The film encourages us to view Netanyahu as the hardest right-wing ideologue ever to serve as Israel’s prime minister, as a man unable to make the concessions necessary to reach a two-state deal with the Palestinians, as a man who sees himself as chosen by destiny to save Israel and the Jews from perils that the rest of the world takes far too lightly, except in those parts of the world where the perils are rooted.

The film is long, and not a thriller, but it’s the second hour that I found riveting. It portrays the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb as precisely the peril that Netanyahu feels destined to face. Israeli journalist Ari Shavit describes Netanyahu as, in his own mind, “the Churchill to Iran’s Nazi Germany.” The film does not specify this extension of Shavit’s analogy, but it seems clear that Netanyahu came to view President Obama as the Neville Chamberlain figure, whose naïve preference for negotiation over the use of force imperils Israel as Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler imperiled the Jews of Europe.

The second hour — relying on interviews with many Obama and Netanyahu insiders plus an array of long-time players and observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict — details the complete breakdown of relations between Netanyahu and Obama, leading to Netanyahu’s unprecedented not-too-subtle support for Mitt Romney in 2012 and climaxing with Netanyahu’s in-your-face address to the U.S. Congress against the Obama administration’s deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

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That speech failed to kill the deal but succeeded only in deepening the hostility, perhaps even hatred, between Netanyahu and Obama. By the end of the film, you have seething anger in Washington and Tel Aviv, an unprecedented low point in the history of the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” that seems to leave the two sides smoldering, or worse than smoldering.

Obama, according to the film, views himself as the closest the U.S. has ever come to a Jewish president, and as president who very much wanted his legacy to include progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, or perhaps the deal itself. Certainly, Obama believes that the negotiated deal he and other world powers made with Iran is the best possible outcome available and in the best interests of Israel. Netanyahu begs to differ — or more than begs — on all counts.

Outline of a final settlement

In pursuit of progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian solution, Obama stated publicly that the basic outline of the final settlement has long been clear. Any possible settlement would be based on the pre-1967 borders, with adjustments to those lines. The adjustment would amount to land swaps to enhance security and take into account developments since 1967, so that Israel would end up with basically the same amount of territory it had before the Six Day War of 1967 and the Palestinians end up with a state of their own for the first time ever.

Soon after Obama made that ‘67-borders-with-land-swaps comment, Netanyahu came to Washington to tell Obama how unacceptable that is to him and how threatening such an outcome would be to Israel. He chose to deliver that message during a media availability in the Oval Office with Obama sitting in silence in front of the cameras and journalists, being lectured by Netanyahu. It’s possible that the essence of the story “Frontline” seeks to tell is conveyed in this passage by several shots of Obama’s face and body language. His smoldering anger summarize the story of a “special relationship” from hell. It also marks the end of any serious progress toward the two-state solution for the remainder of the Obama presidency.

U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg also says that the unprecedented breakdown of the “special relationship” is “all wrapped up in the dysfunction between these two men,” which is underscored by the events of the 2012 election season.

Netanyahu all-but-officially campaigned for Romney and sent a strong message to American Jews that they need to support Romney. Obama was unwilling to ever be in the same room with Netanyahu. These guys really detest one another; the film makes that clear. Netanyahu really thought Romney would win, the film suggests. But in the end, Obama not only was reelected but received 69 percent of the Jewish vote.

Israeli attack on Iran?

The last portion of the film focuses on the Iran nuke stuff. Netanyahu was so convinced that the deal Obama supported was bad for Israel that Israel came very, very close to launching its own strike to destroy Iran’s above-ground nuclear facilities. Goldberg says that “American military planners were going to bed every night assuming that they would wake up to news of an Israeli attack” on Iran. The idea that Israel was that close to such an attack without a green light from Washington is a powerful symbol of how far the “special relationship” had declined and many of the experts in the film added weight to that perception.

Long-time Mideast diplomat/negotiator (now with Brookings) Martin Indyk said Obama had “written off” Netanyahu as an ally or a player where the Iran deal was concerned. The U.S. held secret meeting in Oman with the Iranians and didn’t tell the Israelis, not an act of special friendship. But no problem, Israel was spying on the U.S. and found out about it anyway, also not an act of special friendship.

Indyk said Netanyahu was no longer acting like “’a rational prime minister of Israel [who,]…  understanding the importance of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, would not confront the president on the most important agreement [Obama] has negotiated during his presidency.”

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The same could probably also be said about coming to Washington, under Republican auspices, to give a speech arguing against Democrat Obama’s Iran deal to a joint session of Congress, a speech that many Democrats boycotted out of loyalty to Obama. But, just as with the 2012 election, Netanyahu miscalculated the power of his arguments, at least on Democrats.

Well, that’s probably more than enough to help you decide whether you want to watch the film, which premieres locally, on KTCI and KWCM at 8 p.m. Tuesday and on KTCA at 9.

I will leave you with two more quotes from the program. The first is from Aaron David Miller, a writer and analyst of Mideast matters who also served six secretaries of state as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations, about the prospects for the long-sought Arab-Israeli peace deal:

“We do not have an Israeli or a Palestinian leader right now — or an American president right now, frankly — who is prepared to pay the price of what it would take to lay the basis for conflict-ending agreement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

And lastly from Shavit, the Israeli journalist, referring, I assume, to the long-run success or failure of the Iran nuclear deal: “If, God forbid, it goes bad, in 10 years’ time or 20 years, I think that we will all look back to these years, from 2009 to 2015, and we will be deeply saddened by fact that there wasn’t the ability to rise to the challenge, to work together, to get over the bad blood, to get over the mistrust.”