Obama, Netanyahu try for thaw

After years of chilly relations, president visits Israel

JERUSALEM – As President Barack Obama prepared for his first official trip to Israel, he made a point of referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his affectionate nickname, “Bibi,” in a TV interview.

In Israel, Netanyahu geared up to greet Obama today at the airport in Tel Aviv, ensuring the first images show the two leaders smiling and shaking hands.

But after four years of public clashes, private entreaties and largely unsuccessful attempts to outmaneuver each other, no amount of backslapping is likely to alter perceptions that the personal rapport between Obama and Netanyahu has ranged from awkward to dysfunctional.

The odd couple now will spend nearly three days trying to thaw their chilly relationship.

“They have learned the limits of what they can do vis-a-vis the other, and they both paid a price for their misjudgments of each other,” said Ed Rettig, director of the Israeli office of the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group.

To be sure, relations between the United States and Israel remain strong despite the high-level sniping, with close cooperation on security, intelligence sharing and military affairs. The White House says Obama has spent more time, on the phone or in person, with Netanyahu than with any other world leader.

Most experts say the U.S.-Israeli relationship is too deep and strategic to be derailed by bickering at the top. President George H.W. Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir clashed over Israeli settlements in the late 1980s, although relations later improved.

“Chemistry is for chemists,” said Eytan Gilboa, political science professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. “In international relations, it’s about interests. If the interests are present, the chemistry is irrelevant. And if the interests aren’t there, no chemistry will help.”

Obama seemed to echo that sentiment in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 last week. He called his relationship with Netanyahu “businesslike” and said that despite all the attention to their differences, they’ve proved they can work effectively together.

“We get stuff done,” Obama said.

For now, both leaders are expected to be on their best behavior on a schedule that includes a joint news conference, a closed-door meeting and a private dinner at the prime minister’s residence.

Obama is not bringing demands for a freeze on construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank or Jerusalem or other conditions that angered Netanyahu during the president’s first term. Obama’s aides portray the visit as heavy on imagery and messaging, not policy initiatives.

For his part, Netanyahu is trying to ensure that Obama will not be blindsided by announcements of new settlement projects in the West Bank or the Jerusalem area, like the one that embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to Israel in 2010.

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