The prickly relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been the worst-kept secret of international affairs. Now, tension between the two leaders has flared openly after Israel's elections in which Netanyahu won a fourth term in a landslide. Clearly, the special relationship between the United States and Israel is strained. Neither party is blameless, but the White House needs to repair the damage. If this marriage cannot be saved, the consequences could be ruinous.
The immediate cause of the conflict was an American backlash against Netanyahu's campaign statements and tactics. In an interview to a right-of-center Israeli news site on the eve of the vote, Netanyahu appeared to pledge that he would block the creation of a Palestinian state, reversing his earlier support for a two-state solution. He also posted a controversial Facebook video that sought to mobilize conservative voters with a warning that Israeli Arabs were being bused to the polls "in droves."
Obama signaled his displeasure by waiting nearly two days to congratulate Netanyahu, then he reportedly warned the prime minister that the United States must "reassess our options" in view of his changed stance. The president reiterated that intent in a Friday interview with the Huffington Post, though he did not comment on the specifics -- for instance, whether the United States may drop its opposition to a Palestinian-backed United Nations resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Palestinian statehood by 2017.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu took steps to repair the rift. In interviews with the American media, he insisted he spoke of opposing the creation of a Palestinian state today, when he believes it would likely become an outpost for radical Islamism and a threat to Israel. Netanyahu says he supports a two-state solution on terms that, in his view, would not endanger Israel's security. He also said he considers himself prime minister of all Israelis, Jewish and Arab, and stressed that there was no attempt to keep any Israeli Arabs from voting.
In his Huffington Post interview, Obama more or less rejected Netanyahu's postelection overtures, instead treating his campaign rhetoric as a statement of his true intent.
Many American conservatives believe Obama is anti-Israel. While there is no evidence to support the inflammatory charge, the Obama administration and its supporters have tended to demonize Netanyahu as the enemy of peace.
Yet, as writer Noah Pollak argues in The Weekly Standard, Netanyahu's position is not substantially different from views voiced by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whom Obama has praised as a peacemaker and a great leader.
Though willing to take risks for peace, Rabin had less than full confidence in the Oslo negotiations; shortly before his assassination in 1995, he expressed skepticism about full Palestinian statehood and absolutely rejected a return to pre-1967 borders for Israel. And that was at a time when Palestinian leadership was far more moderate than today, when it is entangled with Hamas, the Islamist terror group that remains committed to Israel's destruction.
There is no question that Netanyahu must do more -- both to outline his policy toward the Palestinian territories and to make a meaningful commitment to the full participation of Arab citizens in Israel's democracy (a concern I repeatedly heard expressed on my visits to that country by Israeli Jews who were hardly pacifists or leftists). Yet at the moment, the ball is in Obama's court. The fraying of ties between the United States and Israel will give more sway to extreme views in both countries, across the political spectrum. Netanyahu has taken steps to de-escalate the tension. It is now Obama's turn.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.