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For Obama, More Business Than Friendship with World Leaders



Presidents often depend on personal relationships with world leaders. Many people have commented on the personal relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Some experts say current relations between the counties are connected to the leaders’ difficult relationship. They say friendship, or the lack of friendship, among world leaders can play a part in foreign affairs.

Mr. Netanyahu spoke in early March before the U.S. Congress. In the speech, he rejected U.S. efforts to limit Iran’s development of nuclear power in exchange for easing economic restrictions.

Mr. Obama did not attend the speech. He said the U.S. president does not usually meet with foreign leaders right before elections in their home country.

Many said both men’s actions appeared to hurt ties between the countries further.

A few weeks after the speech, Mr. Netanyahu said he opposed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. policy supports a two-state solution.

Mr. Netanyahu softened his opposition to a Palestinian state after he won re-election in Israel. But some say his position further damaged U.S.-Israeli relations.

Past relationships

Aaron David Miller is a former State Department Middle East Advisor. He says many former U.S. and Israeli leaders have had tense relationships, including Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin; George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir; and Bill Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu.

But in those cases, Mr. Miller says, the leaders were able to work together despite disagreements and perhaps even dislike. The situation between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu is different.

“And that is a, I think, a result of a confluence of differing personalities, different politics and different policies. It’s a perfect storm basically, and it’s resulted in probably the worst patch in the modern history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.”

Mr. Miller says successful world leaders love politics and people. And personalities matter.

“I watched Bill Clinton at Wye River charm the Israelis and Palestinians. I watched his personal commitment to both the late [Jordanian] King Hussein and the late [Israeli] Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He had emotional relationships. With Rabin, it was an extraordinary example of how personality and common policy and outlook produced one of the closest relationships.”

Mr. Miller says that unlike other recent presidents, including Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush, Mr. Obama is more analytical and introverted. In other words, he likes to be private and intellectual instead of social and emotional.

“In effect, you have a president who I think can be quite compelling at times when he does engage. The question is whether he enjoys it.”

How personal relationships can affect foreign policy

Matthew Dallek is a professor of political management at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He agrees that Mr. Obama appears to perform better with crowds than with individuals.

“[Former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan, in some ways, was this way as well -- the ability in public settings to project and make people feel a part of what it was they were talking about, but then a sort of almost disengagement when it comes to these one-on-one interpersonal relations,” says Mr. Dallek.

Mr. Dallek adds that developing friendships with foreign leaders is important for U.S. presidents, especially if a crisis happens.

He uses the example of the Islamic State taking control of many parts of Syria and Iraq. In that case, President Obama reached out to other countries and formed a coalition against the militant group.

Mr. Dallek says good personal relationships cannot always overcome major policy disagreements. But, he says, when issues are tough personal relationships can make a big difference.

Aru Pande reported this story. Kelly Jean Kelly wrote it for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

analyticaladj. having or showing skill in thinking or reasoning

introvertedadj. shy; not finding it easy to talk to other people

compellingadj. very interesting; able to make someone believe or agree

engagev. get or keep someone’s attention or interest

projectv. act in a way that shows a particular quality

interpersonaladj. relating to relations between people

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