The Ideological Roots of the Obama/Netanyahu Clash

Benjy Cannon
on January 8, 2016

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This week, Frontline ran a documentary titled “Netanyahu at War,” which chronicles the tense relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. I highly recommend it. While it examines the ins and outs of the political tensions between Netanyahu and Obama, what most stuck out to me is the film’s depiction of their differences as a clash between fundamentally different ideologies.

The first half of the film roughly traces Netanyahu’s and Obama’s respective political histories. It portrays the Prime Minister as ideologically driven, deeply influenced by his father’s Revisionist Zionism. In cataloguing Netanyahu’s political rise, the film focuses on his staunch opposition to the Oslo Accords. As PBS tells it, he was strongly motivated by a deep reluctance to give up Israeli land, both out of a belief that Israel should control the land, and as Ari Shavit puts it, his “deep pessimism.” That pessimism follows from a type of “fortress Judaism”: the belief that Jews and Israel will forever be under siege. This made territorial compromise a tough pill for Netanyahu to swallow. Netanyahu’s fundamental conservatism contributed to an icy relationship with President Clinton, as Clinton continued to push for peace following Rabin’s assassination.

Conversely, Obama’s political outlook on Israel stemmed from his relationships with liberal Chicago Jews and their universalistic approach to politics. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg describes Obama as something of a Labor Zionist, who believes that the creation of Israel was a historic opportunity to build a nation state rooted in strong progressive values. It wasn’t surprising when Dore Gold, a former Netanyahu adviser, recounted that the first meetings between Obama and Netanyahu — before either was elected — were marked by a fundamental divide in their respective worldviews.

So while public attention has often focused on the personal and political missteps of the relationship, the roots of their disagreements run deeper. There’s an important lesson in that framing: when personal disagreements divide American and Israeli leaders, it’s also important to account for drastically different ideological outlooks.

The dueling political visions between America’s leaders and the current Israeli government won’t vanish with a new president. By and large, Democrats share Obama’s universalistic worldview and belief in solving problems diplomatically. That will remain a point of contention with Israeli leaders as long as they continue avoiding or outright rejecting territorial compromise and tough diplomacy — as Netanyahu has done — in service of peace.

There’s much more in the film itself — check it out.