Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Saturday, 3 July 2010 00:04 UK

Israel's rocky friendship with Barack Obama

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister  Benjamin Netanyahu (R) (Photos:AP)

For many years Israel has enjoyed a close relationship with the USA, but after recent tensions many Israelis will be watching closely when their leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, meets Mr Obama in Washington on Tuesday.

Benjamin Netanyahu does not have a great history with the occupants of the Oval Office.

He got off to a bad start with Bill Clinton during his first term as Israel's prime minister in the 1990s. After he lectured Mr Clinton about the Arab-Israeli conflict the president was not happy.

"Who the heck does he think he is?" he expostulated. "Who's the hecking superpower here?"

Only according to the witness, a diplomat called Aaron Miller, he did not say "heck".

It is safe to say that Mr Netanyahu's relations with President Obama have been disastrous.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr Obama believes that some of Israel's actions are part of the problem in the Middle East.

He tried - and failed - for months last year to get the Israeli leader to order a complete freeze on the construction of homes for Jews in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Relations were US Vice-President Joe Biden (L) and  Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R)
Tensions date back to Vice-President Biden's troubled visit to Israel

Then, while the US Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting, Israel announced a big expansion of Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish settlement in occupied east Jerusalem. The Americans were furious.

So a few weeks later, when Mr Netanyahu (who spent part of his childhood in America) visited the White House, President Obama did not exactly welcome him as the prodigal son.

It was not just settlements. Mr Netanyahu also lobbied US politicians, looking as if he was undermining the Obama administration on its home turf.

To make matters worse, just before he was due in the Oval Office the prime minister gave an uncompromising speech to the leading Israeli lobby in the United States, which is called the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).

If anyone doubts the power of Israel's friends in the US, they ought to sign up now for Aipac's annual policy conference.

TIMELINE: 2010 ISRAEL-US ROW
9 Mar: Israel announces the building of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem during visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden.
Mr Biden condemns the move
11 Mar: Mr Biden says there must be no delay in resuming Mid-East peace talks, despite the row
12 Mar: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Israeli move is "deeply negative" for relations
15 Mar: The US says it is waiting for a "formal response" from Israel to its proposals to show it is committed to Mid-East peace
16 Mar: The US envoy to the Mid-East postpones a visit to Israel
17 Mar: President Obama denies there is a crisis with Israel
22 Mar: Hillary Clinton tells pro-Israel lobby group Aipac Israel has to make "difficult but necessary choices" if it wants peace with Palestinians.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu tells Aipac Israel has a "right to build" in Jerusalem
23 Mar: Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu meet behind closed doors with no media access
23 Mar: Jerusalem municipal government approves building of 20 new homes in East Jerusalem
24 Mar: Mr Netanyahu ends Washington trip talking of a "golden" solution amid US silence

Take a look at their website, which boasts that it attracts half the Senate, a third of the House of Representatives and "countless Israeli and American policymakers and thought leaders".

I went to this year's conference, in March, the one where Mr Netanyahu made his speech.

It is held in a massive convention centre in Washington DC. The delegates, more than 7,000 of them, filled the kind of room that is usually measured in terms of football pitches.

The delegates, and politicians, and "thought leaders" gave the Israeli PM a standing ovation when he said that Jerusalem was not a settlement, but Israel's capital.

To the White House, it looked as if Mr Netanyahu was rubbing salt into the wounds of the Ramat Shlomo affair.

President Obama showed his displeasure by treating his guest, in the words of one Israeli newspaper, like the president of Equatorial Guinea.

No video in time for Israel's evening news. Not even a still photo. Mr Obama reportedly retreated entirely for a while to have a private dinner with his family.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper, admittedly no friend of the prime minister, said he left America "disgraced, isolated and altogether weaker… ".

Cultural links

So this time, Mr Netanyahu's people say it is all going to be different. They have briefed that he will stay in the official guest quarters, Blair House, and that the row is now officially over.

It is certainly the case that there is a symbiosis between Israel and the United States that can never exist between Washington and the Palestinians.

It goes far deeper than the influence of Aipac - or even the $3bn (£2bn) a year the US gives Israel.

Every American president declares himself a friend, but not all of them have been uncritical friends

President Harry Truman in 1948 was a key supporter of Israel's declaration of independence.

There are ties of religion, and culture.

Many Israelis have family in the United States. American leaders, including Joe Biden in that visit to Jerusalem that was hijacked by the settlement plan, speak of their love for Israel and the way they feel at home when they visit.

But what seems to have happened under President Obama is an attempt to return to the kind of relationship that American used to have with Israel.

Every American president declares himself a friend, but not all of them have been uncritical friends.

The first President Bush had a serious spat with a hardline Israeli nationalist prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

In the 1950s President Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from Egyptian territory seized in the Suez war.

Once it was by no means automatic that America would veto criticism of Israel in the UN security council.

And so on...

Political times change. But some realities are constant, and one is that powerful countries like the United States will not act against what they believe to be their own interests.

The Americans have said they will be warm but unrelenting in trying to extract something from their visitor that will persuade the Palestinians that it is worth going to yet another round of direct peace talks.

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SEE ALSO
Analysis: Bleak climate for Mid-East talks
09 May 10 |  Middle East
History lessons for US policy on Israel?
20 Mar 10 |  From Our Own Correspondent
US-Israel row: Israeli views
24 Mar 10 |  Middle East
US Jewish lobby gains new voice
16 Apr 08 |  Americas
Profile: Benjamin Netanyahu
20 Feb 09 |  Middle East
Profile: Barack Obama
09 Oct 09 |  Americas

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