When Obama’s Dreams Became Bibi’s Nightmares

REVIEW: ‘My Brother’s Keeper: Netanyahu, Obama, & the Year of Terror & Conflict that Changed the Middle East Forever’ by Ari Harow

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Barack Obama during a 2016 meeting. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
February 18, 2024

The United States and Israel have a special relationship predicated on shared values and similar democratic principles. As Ari Harow documents in My Brother’s Keeper, that relationship was sorely tested during the Obama administration. Harow, a former chief of staff and adviser to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, offers an insider’s account of a transformational period for both nations.

Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th U.S. president on Jan. 20, 2009. Less than three months later, Benjamin Netanyahu assumed the office of prime minister. The two men had some things in common: Both are media savvy and renowned orators with keen political instincts. Both had experienced rapid political ascents. Both were, in their own ways, titanic figures capable of inspiring both admiration and animosity. But here the similarities end.

Long before he entered politics, Netanyahu was a soldier, a combat veteran of Sayeret Matkal, an elite special forces unit. By the time he took office, Netanyahu already had a long political career, including serving as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, and had held a variety of cabinet posts. He had nearly three decades of political experience.

By contrast, Obama had never been in the military and had served a mere four years in the Senate.

Importantly, both leaders were products of very different systems. The representative nature of American politics meant that Obama had to be a master at campaigning. Netanyahu, however, had to answer to the Likud membership. As Harow notes, Netanyahu was a "soldier, someone who spent years being groomed for his higher calling and who had learned survival in the unforgiving trenches of the Israeli political system." The Israeli premier "wasn’t stiff or removed, but he wasn’t Obama." Indeed, "in the internal scheme of things, he didn’t have to be."

Yet, these different backgrounds were not what drove tensions during the Obama years. In fact, the history of U.S.-Israel relations is characterized by leaders who are often more dissimilar than alike. For example, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton enjoyed a good relationship and one would be hard-pressed to think of men as different as the tight-lipped soldier-statesman and the famously gregarious, glad-handing former governor of Arkansas.

As Harow makes clear, the root of the divide that emerged had less to do with relations between the leaders themselves and more to do with their differing aims and objectives.

Obama sought rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the leading state sponsor of terrorism that calls for Israel’s annihilation and another genocide of Jews. The mullahs sponsored, trained, and funded terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction and vowed to wipe Israel "off the map." It is hard to imagine any mainstream, electable Israeli leader quietly acceding to a longtime partner and ally feting a nation committed to its destruction.

As a presidential candidate, Obama had promised to "never seek in any way to compromise Israel’s security," but the policies that he pursued as president would do precisely that. It was, in fact, clear from the beginning that Obama sought to change the U.S.-Israel relationship.

In their first meeting as leaders of their respective countries, Obama asked to speak with Netanyahu privately. The meeting lasted approximately 30 minutes. Afterwards, Netanyahu would tell Harow: "Ari, we’re in trouble."

As Harow recounts: "The president told him in an emphatic tone that he wanted a total building freeze in the West Bank," using the phrase "not one brick." It was, he notes, "diplomatic-speak that was just about as nuanced as a sledge-hammer blow, and it foreshadowed an impending seismic fissure in the U.S.-Israeli bilateral paradigm that had become a full-fledged operational alliance after 9/11, with Israel assuming a leading role in the global war on terrorism."

The Israeli premier had "wanted this trip to launch a productive and positive new beginning for the two new administrations" only to find that it "had not started as planned," as Harow understatedly puts it.

As his presidential memoirs would later reveal, Obama holds several beliefs about Israel and the Middle East that simply aren’t true, including the common misconception that "settlements"—Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland—are a chief source of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinian leaders, from the ruling Fatah movement in the West Bank to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, consider all of Israel to be a "settlement"—and they routinely say as much in their media and educational textbooks. It is for this reason that Palestinian leaders have rejected numerous offers for statehood in exchange for peace with Israel.

In many respects, Obama’s emphasis on "settlements" as a root cause of the conflict was a throwback: a reversion to decades of failed approaches pushed by the U.S. State Department and presidential administrations of various political stripes.

But by the time Obama took office, the U.S.-Israel relationship was arguably at a historic high, thanks in large part to shared objectives during the war on terror. From 2000 to 2008, Palestinian leaders rejected no fewer than three formal offers for statehood—a fact that wasn’t lost on Obama’s two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton famously declared, "I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state," and warned his successor not to trust Yasser Arafat. Obama, however, viewed himself as someone apart from historical realities. As Harow notes, Obama "wanted to be the one world leader to finally settle the Israeli-Palestinian issue." Yet, "there was a lot of bloodshed in the wake of men who dreamed of reshaping the Middle East." To many in the region, Obama’s dreams looked more like nightmares.

Obama’s policies toward Iran would lead to real tensions—and not just with Israel. The Islamic Republic is a revisionist power, committed to exporting its twisted ideology and overthrowing the established regional order. By reaching out to Tehran, Obama was unwittingly pushing Gulf Arab monarchies and the Jewish state closer together. This process would eventually culminate in the Abraham Accords under the Trump administration. Harow highlights its origins, correctly noting that Israel gained regional respect when it flexed its muscles and Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress to oppose the emerging Iran nuclear deal.

At the time, Israel had recently emerged from a bloody 50-day war against Hamas, the Iranian proxy that controls the Gaza Strip. That conflict began after Hamas operatives kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. And its characteristics—bloody urban combat, extensive use of human shields, and lengthy terrorist tunnels—were a harbinger of the war that Israel fights today.

"The Middle East," Harow observes, "has a funny way of unraveling the dreams and best intentions of American presidents … the naïve aspirations of the blessed-are-the-peacemakers have inadvertently produced byproducts of bloodshed and anguish." In My Brother’s Keeper, Harow ably and fairly chronicles that unraveling, depicting an American presidency whose ambitions in the Middle East ran counter to the daily realities of many of America’s allies.

My Brother’s Keeper: Netanyahu, Obama, & the Year of Terror & Conflict that Changed the Middle East Forever
by Ari Harow
Post Hill Press, 298 pp., $30

Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.