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What Obama really thinks of Netanyahu

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
November 11, 2011 -- Updated 0737 GMT (1537 HKT)
President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during the U.N. General Assembly Session on September 21.
President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during the U.N. General Assembly Session on September 21.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama didn't object when Sarkozy called Israeli prime minister a "liar"
  • Aaron Miller says there's a long history of U.S. presidents clashing with Israeli leaders
  • He says Obama-Netanyahu relationship is worse because there's no trust
  • Miller: To achieve progress on peace, Obama needs improved relationship with Netanyahu

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. His new book "Can America Have Another Great President?" will be published by Bantam Books in 2012.

Washington (CNN) -- The open mike I-wish-I-hadn't-said-that moment when French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar" and Barack Obama didn't disagree is a tale as old as the hills for American presidents and secretaries of state.

For decades, American presidents and diplomats have been locked in uneasy relationships with Israeli prime ministers from the Likud Party. One example: "Who's the f---- superpower here," a frustrated Bill Clinton exploded to his aides after his first meeting with Netanyahu in 1996.

It's a good thing for Obama that the open mike caught Sarkozy with the ad hominem attack on Netanyahu rather than the president.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

"I can't stand him. He's a liar," Sarkozy said. Obama was heard to say, "You're tired of him -- what about me? I have to deal with him every day," according to a French website.

I'm sure many people would have loved to have heard more of what Obama thinks. There's no doubt that Obama is frustrated and angry in the extreme with what he perceives to be Netanyahu's recalcitrance when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Indeed if there was a cartoon bubble over the president's head, I guarantee you his sentiments would have matched or even exceeded, Sarkozy's. When it comes to "Bibi" Netanyahu, our somewhat detached and cool president is hot and very combustible. When Netanyahu was dismissively lecturing the president during their press conference last June in Washington, the look on Obama's face was somewhere between mortification and raw anger. If looks could kill, we would have had a new Israeli Prime Minister by now.

U.S.-Israeli relations on any number of issues are extremely close, even intimate; and the Iran nuclear challenge will almost certainly make them even closer. But the Arab-Israeli peace issue seems to bring out the worst in both sides, and it has for years now.

Kissinger and Rabin went at it in 1975 over a second Sinai disengagement agreement (Kissinger recalled our Middle Eastern ambassadors as part of his so-called reassessment of the U.S.-Israeli relationship). President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin had a huge flap over settlements during the Camp David summit. President George H.W. Bush believed then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir misled him on settlements during their first meeting in 1989; and the relationship really never recovered. And Secretary of State James Baker wrestled with Shamir as well during the run-up to the Madrid peace conference in 1991.

So Barack Obama is only the latest in a line of frustrated American presidents and secretaries of state. They have had to deal with a close ally who can also be withholding and maddening when it comes to protecting Israel's political and security interests in a conflict in which they have much more to lose than the American mediator if things don't turn out right.

But President Obama's Bibi problem is different in several respects from his predecessors -- a fact that all but guarantees that tensions with the Israelis on this issue are not going to subside anytime soon. The 2012 election has kept them in a box. Indeed, the president's speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month notwithstanding -- more a campaign speech than one that addressed the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- if Obama is re-elected, buckle your seat belts. It's going to be a wild ride with the Israelis.

First, the others -- Kissinger, Carter, Bush 41, and Baker, unlike Obama (so far) -- all succeeded. Their fights with their Israeli counterparts were productive; indeed they all had a strategy -- and sufficient will and commitment on the part of Israelis and Arabs to do serious diplomacy. At the end of the day, despite the tensions, everybody went home a winner. Even Bill Clinton managed to hammer out two agreements with Netanyahu, though neither was completely implemented.

Second, part of the reason these three succeeded was that despite the toughness and the tension, there was a third "T" -- a modicum of trust that allowed each side to work with the other in something other than a zero-sum game environment. They built a mutual stake in the other's success. Former Secretary of State Baker will tell you that he had plenty of struggles with Shamir, but the two worked out a good personal relationship -- no leaks, respecting mutual red lines and so on.

President Obama has yet to do that, and neither has Netanyahu. On the Arab-Israel issue, the president believes Bibi is a con man, and Netanyahu thinks the president wants somebody else as prime minister. The president is almost certainly persuaded that Netanyahu is buying time, playing American politics and hoping that the next president is a Republican who won't be so focused on pressing Israel on the peace process. If the administration could find a way to engineer regime change in Israel, it would.

Indeed, the key folks that deal with the peace process at State and at the White House are veterans of dealing with Netanyahu (Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross). They have seen the movie before, and they had hoped not to be in the sequel.

Finally, there's the president himself, who clearly believes he knows best how to run the peace process. Obama doesn't just have a Bibi problem, he's got an Israel problem. Obama is not anti-Israel, but unlike his two predecessors -- Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- he's not in love with the idea of Israel.

He falls somewhere north of Jimmy Carter on the pro-Israel spectrum and south of George H.W. Bush. Here the president's coolness and detachment works against him. His early tough rhetoric against settlements and his commitment to fix the peace process whether or not Israel agreed created a pretty rocky foundation for gaining the trust and confidence so critical on the Israeli side, if a president wants them to do politically tough things later.

Yes, Mr. President, Israelis can be frustrating. Just ask Kissinger, Carter and Baker. And this Israeli prime minister may simply not be willing or able to do the deal you want him to do. But if there's any chance of it, you're going to have to find a better way to deal with him, figure out how to stabilize the relationship and find a better balance than pandering to Netanyahu on one hand or trying to punish him on the other.

And in the meantime, stay away from any live mikes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron Miller.

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