Reading between the lines of Obama-Netanyahu meeting

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on the margins of the UN General Assembly on Wednesday for what might be their last meeting of the Obama presidency. It was one of their least contentious meetings, outwardly at least, with both going to great lengths to be nice to one another and to laud the US-Israel relationship.

“Our hope will be that in these conversations we get the sense of how Israel sees the next few years, what the opportunities are and what the challenges are in order to ensure we keep alive the possibility of a stable, secure Israel at peace with its neighbors,” President Obama said before the meeting in New York.

Still, despite the encouraging tone, reports from senior US and Israeli officials suggested (not surprisingly) that in private the two leaders argued over the settlements issue. According to Reuters, after the meeting a senior US official told reporters of “profound US concerns about the corrosive effect that that is having on the prospect for two states.”

So, where do US-Israel ties really stand? And what can we expect moving forward? There were four key takeaways from Wednesday’s meeting:

Another fight around the corner?

No one should doubt that Obama and Netanyahu remain very much at odds on both the personal and policy levels. Indeed, their relationship remains perhaps the most dysfunctional and least productive of any US president and Israeli prime minister. And while this might have been their last face-to-face meeting, this likely won’t be their last fight.

There is a very real possibility that once the election is over, President Obama might consider some sort of virtual peace process initiative — either a presidential speech laying out US positions on a two-state solution, or pushing for a UN Security Council resolution that seeks to do the same.

Should he move in that direction, we are likely to see some combative pushback from Mr. Netanyahu — and a return to the tough language and bitter public fight that defined much of their relationship during the last eight years.

But there’s no reason to fight right now

Over the past eight years, tensions between Obama and Netanyahu have focused on two key issues: how to deal with Iran’s putative quest for a nuclear weapon; and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

On Iran, the bitter fight over the nuclear agreement is now behind them. True, Netanyahu is still very much opposed to the deal, but the reality is that there’s not much he can do about it. As for the peace process, the President made a tough presentation on settlements and the Prime Minister pushed back.

Yet there was none of the outwardly tense body language, icy stairs, public lectures or mean-spirited backgrounders to the press that have marked their previous encounters on this issue. For now, the peace process is very much in the deep freeze; and there’s little either of them can or even want to do about that.

Netanyahu wanted some good optics …

Politics on both the US and Israeli sides helped ease any inclination to fight, let alone to produce a bad meeting. Netanyahu has been vigorously defending the recently concluded US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding even as his critics have blasted the MOU on the grounds that Israel could have achieved far more had he not opposed the Iran deal and not interfered in US politics by speaking to the US Congress.

So Netanyahu really had no choice but to praise the accord and to laud the President for his support of Israel’s security needs. To do otherwise would have undercut that campaign and suggested that US-Israeli relations, on the security side, were far less functional than the Prime Minister had claimed.

It would have drawn attention to the fact that for all his determined opposition to the Iran deal and tough bargaining on the MOU, Netanyahu has, in his critics’ eyes, gotten very little in return.

… And so did the President

Obama also had little reason to want a public confrontation with Israel. Right now, one of the President’s key objectives is to do everything he can to facilitate the election of a Democratic successor. The last thing he wants is a nasty spat with Netanyahu that would give the Republicans an opportunity to accuse him of being anti-Israel and, by implication, link Hillary Clinton to such a policy.

A fight with Israel could prove very embarrassing to Mrs. Clinton, and might force her to distance herself from the President or appear less pro-Israel than her opponent. Either course, two months before what could be a close election, might prove costly.

The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has been a drama-filled soap opera almost from the get-go, even while the US-Israeli relationship, particularly on the security side, has fared relatively well.

Indeed, when it comes to supporting Israeli security needs, US policy has remained stunningly constant. It would be nice to imagine that with a new president the relationship will improve dramatically. In tone, it may — for a while. But my bet is within six months, and certainly by the end of 2017, the next US president and Prime Minister Netanyahu will be butting heads and annoying the hell out of each other.

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