When they first began their relationship six-some years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama might have saved each other an awful lot of time and hardship by sitting down to make an arrangement. Obama would get his nuclear deal with Iran, they might have agreed, and in turn Netanyahu would be allowed to skate by for another eight years without an Israel-Palestine peace deal.
For all the turmoil between Obama and Netanyahu, all the poison that's flowed between them, both will emerge from Obama's tenure having achieved their respective top priorities from the relationship. Netanyahu successfully held off the intermittent American efforts to broker peace, and Obama got his nuclear deal over Israeli objections.
When Obama and Netanyahu sit down on Monday at the White House for their 16th meeting — and not their first makeup meeting after a period of enmity — they can look back at a relationship that, paradoxically, has been remarkably sour and yet has also delivered the two leaders exactly what they most hoped to get out of it.
And that speaks to a little-noticed trend in the trajectory of US-Israel relations. While the most visible change has been the open and bitter enmity between the two leaders and their governments, that has obscured a less obvious but in many ways more important trend: Their nations' politics and interests are drifting ever so slightly apart. Even if future leaders are less visibly antagonistic, the barely managed disagreements underneath a relationship that is increasingly transactional, all of which isn't even really that new, is probably the new status quo.
It's too early to eulogize the Obama-Netanyahu era of US-Israel relations, but only barely. The White House acknowledged last week that it does not expect to achieve an Israel-Palestine peace deal before Obama leaves office. Netanyahu's government has given up on killing the Iran deal and quietly shifted to learning how to live with it. Barring, say, the spread of Syria's civil war across Israel's border, it seems likely that Obama will hand off to the next president an Israeli relationship that looks very much like today's.
That relationship, it's no secret, has not gone very well in the past six years, and it's worse than just the two leaders disliking one another. In the US, the politics of all things Israel are becoming more polarized and politicized, jeopardizing long-term US support for Israel. In Israel, rising right-wing politics have correlated with suspicion of the US and with preliminary but worrying trend lines away from liberal democracy.
The next US president will inherit relations with an Israel that is more hostile to the peace process, more isolated among its traditional Western allies, and more paralyzed by its own internal politics. Netanyahu, for his part, will be sitting across from either a Democratic president whose constituents are less eager to support Israel or a Republican president whose lawmakers are increasingly interested in using Israel as a cudgel for domestic political gain, whether that's what's best for Israeli interests or not.
Therein lies the paradox of the Obama-Netanyahu era: Though both saw relations between their countries sour, both also walked away with their primary aims achieved. Improving or even maintaining the relationship appears to have been neither's top priority, in both of their cases getting subsumed by other goals.
And maybe this was always where the relationship was heading: a series of short-term negotiations over regional security policies; an Israeli-US relationship that both leaders call "rock solid" and based in values but that is in fact fundamentally transactional, based more in day-to-day management of what remain of their mutual interests.
All allies have disagreements, sure, but often those are within the context of overarching agreement about the bigger picture: The US and Germany generally share the mission of a united and democratic Europe; the US and Japan both want to see a peaceful East Asia and a contained China. But the US and Israel don't really agree on the bigger picture anymore: Netanyahu opposes granting the Palestinians a state, opposes any easing of relations with Iran, and prefers Arab dictators to unpredictable and often Islamist democratic movements.
But the Obama-Netanyahu story is not just one of divergent national interests, although in many ways it is that. It is also a story of how the personal objectives and priorities of national leaders can shape foreign policy.
It is in Israel's long-term interests, as has been pointed out over and over, to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians. Yet Netanyahu has resisted this for years successfully, out of some combination of personal ideology, short-term thinking, and a desire to maintain his tentative hold on domestic party politics.
As for Obama, he might have come into office seeking an Israel-Palestine peace deal as his top priority for the Middle East. But it became clear within a few months of his arrival that this was not the case: When Obama demanded that Israel freeze settlement growth in the West Bank before peace talks begin, and Netanyahu shrugged him off, Obama did not press the issue. Netanyahu and many others saw this as fecklessness or weakness inherent to Obama's personality, but it turned out to be largely a question of priorities. When it came time for the Iran nuclear deal, which clearly was a top priority for Obama, he pushed it through despite fervent Israeli opposition.
As Josh Marshall wrote earlier this year, when Netanyahu bet big on opposing the Iran nuclear deal, the Israeli leader fundamentally misjudged Obama after the 2009 settlements fight, and ultimately ended up paying a big political price and getting nothing. Obama, unlike the previous two presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, just wasn't quite so invested in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and wasn't as willing to pressure Israelis (or Palestinians) to take the necessary steps.
The same could be said of both Obama and Netanyahu when it comes to the supposedly "unshakable" US-Israel alliance: It's not really a first priority for either of them. Both pay lip service to the official narrative of a deep, eternal, and values-based alliance between their nations. But both know this is not really true — the relationship as we know it today is quite new, dating back to Reagan or at most Nixon, and even since then it has been regularly and often poisonously turbulent. And that speaks to the degree to which forces larger than the leaders' personal priorities are at play here.
Changing Israeli demographics are making the country more right-wing, more hostile to peace with the Palestinians, and, as a result, less friendly with its traditional Western allies. Changing American demographics are eroding the base of support for pro-Israel policies and making the issue more partisan. The collapse of the peace process and the deepening of Israel's occupation of the Palestinians exacerbates political trends away from the relationship in both countries.
That doesn't mean a full-on US-Israel breakup is coming — if the US can remain allies with Saudi Arabia for 50 years, it will almost certainly remain allies with a more right-wing and less democratic Israel. But it does mean the Obama-Netanyahu relationship as we've known it for the past six years may well be what the future looks like: not one of personal enmity, necessarily, but one of divergent interests and policies in which the two leaders, whoever they are, procure the occasional concession from one another, cooperate on this or that mutual interest, hand off some American security aid, but otherwise do their own things.
It may be the case that a future American or Israeli leader will put on a happier face about the relationship, particularly if the next US president is a Republican or the next Israeli government more centrist. They might work a little harder at managing the optics and at avoiding public backbiting; it's hard to imagine that could be much worse. And, who knows, maybe the skies will open up and an Israel-Palestine peace deal will appear and the country and its relationship with the US will be transformed.
But I wouldn't bet on it. Rather, today's stilted and formal press conference between Obama and Netanyahu, who look more like they're going to the dentist than visiting with a beloved ally, probably best captures the probable near future of US-Israel ties: a relationship in which the two leaders insist there is "no daylight" between their nations, even when everyone in the world knows that there is in fact significant and widening daylight on many of the most important issues they face. It's a relationship in which they never really overcome these differences so much as manage them, getting what they need from each other, cooperating when they can, and shrugging off the rest.