Bibi to Barack: Why Can't We Be Friends?

Lisa Beyer writes editorials on international affairs. She was previously at Time magazine, where she was an assistant managing editor, foreign editor, national editor and Jerusalem bureau chief. She also worked at the nonprofit International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in love. Or so it seemed at the press conference after his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Jerusalem today.

The two leaders have had a testy relationship, Netanyahu going so far as to embrace Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, in last year's presidential race. Yet during today's briefing, Netanyahu took every opportunity to agree with Obama, flatter him and even leave the podium to pat the man's shoulder or take his hand.

Asked why Israelis didn't care for Obama as they had his predecessors, Netanyahu said his compatriots ought to get to know the president as he had. As Obama rationalized his early missteps handling the peace process, saying these were difficult matters, Netanyahu leaned on his microphone to offer a gravelly "right," perhaps forgetting that at the time he was livid. When Obama said he'd be visiting the military cemetery on Mount Herzl and mentioned that Netanyahu's brother Yoni, a war hero, was buried there, the prime minister looked ready to cry.

Why the sweet emotion suddenly?

It's always valuable politically for an Israeli leader to be seen as getting along with the U.S. president, since Israelis count on the U.S. for security backup. Until recently, Netanyahu had been strong enough to discount this, but his position was weakened by January elections that empowered a new party, Yesh Atid, led by the charismatic Yair Lapid.

Also, as much as Netanyahu's performance looked like acting, he may have been genuinely pleased with his discussions with Obama, who referred to the prime minister throughout the press conference by his nickname "Bibi."

On topic No. 1, Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. and Israel have disagreed, with Israel arguing the U.S. should draw a red line on Iran's uranium enrichment, beyond which Iran will provoke U.S. military action. In Jerusalem, Netanyahu got no satisfaction on that score, but Obama did note Israel's freedom to act independently of the U.S. Calling this Israel's right to "defend itself by itself against any threat," Netanyahu led the press conference with this point and repeated that the president had acknowledged it.

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