TIME Foreign Policy

Why Bibi and Barack Can’t Get Along

It would be easy but for the deep differences in policy, politics and personality.

The messy relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama began, appropriately enough, in a janitor’s office at Reagan National Airport in March 2007. U.S. and Israeli diplomats have been cleaning up ever since, as the two men have left a path littered with personal slights and policy differences.

But their confrontation over Netanyahu’s politically tinged speech to Congress Tuesday could end up being their messiest yet, affecting the outcome of U.S.-Iran nuclear talks, the upcoming election in Israel and the future of the Middle East.

Bibi and Barack’s hastily arranged first meeting was, in fact, cordial and respectful, according to those who were there. Obama was returning to Washington from the primary campaign trail. Netanyahu was headed back to Israel where he was the opposition leader in the Knesset. Both knew they might soon be in power, and both recognized it would be work to reconcile their differences.

For starters, they came from very different backgrounds. As TIME wrote in 2010, Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, was among the intellectual leaders of what is known as revisionist Zionism while his older brother became a national hero after leading, and dying in, the 1976 raid on Entebbe.

Obama for his part is the Christian son of an atheist father who had been raised a Muslim. The future president spent formative childhood years in a Jakarta house that had no refrigerator and no flushing toilet, and he still bears on his arm a scar from a playing-field cut perfunctorily stitched up in a Jakarta hospital.

But the real challenge the two have faced is their different policies in the Middle East. Obama came to office reaching out to Iran and pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu opposed warming ties with the militantly anti-Israel theocrats in Tehran and refused in early meetings with Obama publicly to embrace the possibility of a Palestinian state.

The two men have endeavored to put a positive face on their differences, and at times it wasn’t hard since they and their countries often had common interests. The two countries have collaborated on anti-Iran measures, and senior officials say the security relationship between the two countries has never been closer.

But as often as not, the combination of personal and policy differences, fueled by distrustful staffers, gave way to friction between the two men. There was the time Israel announced a massive expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden arrived there for talks—a traditional Israeli greeting for peace-process pushing U.S. diplomats that dates back at least to Secretary of State James Baker. Then there was “the Snub” —Obama’s 2010 decision to leave Netanyahu negotiating with aides in the West Wing while he went for dinner with his family.

The outcome of their latest confrontation remains to be seen. Netanyahu faces a tough election this month and the White House’s increasingly public criticism may well show their desire for a change in leadership. Netanyahu’s effort to encourage anti-Obama members of Congress to push new sanctions could help scupper the already tenuous U.S.-Iranian talks.

But even if nothing much comes of their latest confrontation, few imagine the men will ever be inclined to patch up their differences. As Netanyahu’s sometime political nemesis Avram Burg told TIME in 2010, the two men may simply be irreconcilable. “You cannot stitch together the world visions of Obama and Netanyahu,” Burg said. “This is a clash of the psychological infrastructure.”

Read next: Netanyahu Speech Becomes Applause Line for 2016 Republicans

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TIME Foreign Policy

Netanyahu’s Approval Rating Rises in the U.S., Poll Finds

As voters back home in Israel are turned off by the prime minister seeking re-election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting more popular in the U.S., according to a new poll.

Netanyahu is viewed favorably by 45% of Americans, and only 24% view him unfavorably, according to a new Gallup poll. That’s up from a 35% favorable rating in a July 2012 poll.

In Israel, however, only 41% of likely voters said they view their Prime Minister favorably as his re-election effort enters its final weeks, according to a Times of Israel poll published in February.

In the U.S., Republicans were much more likely to say they support Netanyahu than their Democratic counterparts. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans said they viewed the Prime Minister favorably, compared with about a third of Democrats.

Read More: Netanyahu: Speech Not Intended to Disrespect Obama

Netanyahu has come under fire from White House officials for planning a trip to the U.S. without consulting the State Department or working through typical diplomatic channels. The visit, facilitated by House Speaker John Boehner, will feature a controversial speech to Congress in which the Prime Minister is expected to denounce a deal proposed by President Obama to work with Iran on nuclear power.

Despite the recent criticism from Democrats, Netanyahu’s favorability numbers are an improvement from three years ago, when only half of Republicans and a quarter of Democrats said they viewed him favorably.

The margin of error for the Gallup poll was 4%, while the Times of Israel poll had a 3.4% margin of error.

TIME 2016 Election

Netanyahu Speech Becomes Applause Line for 2016 Republicans

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Travels To United States
Amos Ben Gershom—GPO/Getty Images In this handout photo provided by the Israeli Government Press Office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah leave Tel Aviv on their way to Washington DC, on March 1, 2015.

Republican presidential candidates are using Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress as a cudgel against the White House.

The presidential candidates who are in Congress are all attending the speech, unlike Vice President Joe Biden and some Democratic lawmakers. Those who aren’t in Congress aren’t changing up their schedules to attend as private citizens but say they will watch it on television.

Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress just two weeks before the Israeli election has caused a partisan rift, with the Republicans lawmakers who invited Netanyahu on one side, and the White House and many allied Democrats on the other. Netanyahu, a vocal critic of the ongoing P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, is expected to warn against the emerging agreement.

Meanwhile neither President Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with the Israeli leader on his visit to the U.S., as National Security Advisor Susan Rice condemned the visit as “destructive.”

At the Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington last week, speaker after speaker criticized the White House approach to Netanyahu.

“We need a leader who understands that when the Prime Minister and leader of our longtime ally asks to come to Congress to share his concerns about Iran, we should show him and his country our respect,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said. On Monday, Walker penned an op-ed accused Obama of making the visit a “political football.”

Last month, in a foreign policy address in Chicago, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed the Netanyahu address, earning a thank-you tweet from Netanyahu. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper last week, he called Obama’s behavior toward Israel “completely inappropriate.”

And over the weekend, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Netanyahu’s treatment a “national disgrace.”

Aides to Walker, Bush, Christie, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said their bosses have out-of-town commitments and cannot attend the address, but will watch Netanyahu’s remarks on television. Aides to other candidates not currently serving in Congress did not respond to a request for comment about their bosses’ plans.

“I will be there in the front row,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday. Sens. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are also likely running for president, will also attend.

Attendance at the speech became a partisan lightning rod as Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is set to receive an award from EMILY’s List Tuesday night in Washington, came under attack this weekend in an ad from the conservative Emergency Committee For Israel questioning her commitment to the American ally.

“Does she support the boycotters, or is she too afraid to stand up to them?” the ad states, asking whether she will attend. Clinton’s plan for the speech are not yet clear.

TIME Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu: Speech Not Intended to Disrespect Obama

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “regret” Monday that his address to a joint session of Congress has become politicized, but pledged to continue to criticize the emerging Iran nuclear agreement.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, Netanyahu was greeted by the friendly audience with multiple standing ovations, saying he appreciates all that President Obama has done in support of his country.

“My speech is not intended to show any disrespect to President Obama or the esteemed office which he holds,” he said. Republicans invited Netanyahu to address Congress Tuesday without first consulting the White House in a breach of diplomatic protocol. The White House responded by refusing to meet with the Israeli leader, citing proximity to this month’s Israeli elections.

Netanyahu appeared to acknowledge that his address has become a distraction from the very talks he aims to criticize.

“You know, never has so much been written about a speech that hasn’t been given,” he quipped. Even attendance at the Tuesday speech has become controversial, with a number of Democratic lawmakers pledging to boycott.

“The last thing that I would want is for Israel to become a partisan issue, and I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that,” Netanyahu said.

But the Prime Minister said he would proceed with his plan to aggressively criticize the P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, which are inching closer to an agreement and he warns could “threaten the survival of Israel.”

“I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there’s still time to avert them,” Netanyahu said, alluding to the Jewish people’s millennia in diaspora. “Today we are no longer silent. Today we have a voice. And tomorrow, as Prime Minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice.”

“Israel and the U.S. agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons, but we disagree on the best way to prevent Iran for developing those weapons,” he added.

Before Netanyahu took the stage, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power defended the Obama Administration’s support for Israel and criticized the politicization of the alliance. Later Monday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice is set to address the pro-Israel group to deliver in-depth remarks about the Iran talks in advance of Netanyahu’s criticism.

“Debating the most effective policy both within our respective democracies and among partners is more than useful, it is a necessary part of arriving at informed decisions,” Power said, attempting to separate out the politics from the substance. “Politicizing that process is not. The stakes are too high for that.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Netanyahu Overshadows His Own Speech

A partisan debate over the terms of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. threatened to overshadow his message, as he arrived Sunday in the U.S. two days before an address to the Congress about the dangers of President Barack Obama’s recent moves to cut a deal with Iran over its nuclear program.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that 48% of registered voters said Republicans in Congress should not have invited Netanyahu without first checking with Obama, with just 30% of Americans supporting the move. President Obama has refused to meet the Israeli leader, citing the proximity of the visit on Israel’s elections. Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice, cast the speech last week as “destructive to the fabric of U.S.-Israeli ties.”

At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., Sunday, the mood was uneasy, as the controversy overshadowed the conference and thrust the bipartisan organization into the uncomfortable position of lobbying lawmakers to attend a speech, as opposed to its key legislative priority: calling on Congress to play a role in reviewing the Iran agreement. “Frankly all of us should be concerned that care so deeply about the bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” AIPAC CEO Howard Kohr said Sunday. “We have spent active hours lobbying for members of the House and Senate to attend this speech.”

In the lead-up to the speech, dueling ads from left and right focused on the speech and who would attend. An incendiary ad from a group founded by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and linked to Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson drew condemnation from all corners for accusing Rice of turning a blind eye to genocide. The ad compared Rice’s role in shaping a withdrawn U.S. policy during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which Rice herself has since criticized, with her position on Netanyahu’s visit. “Ms. Rice may be blind to the issue of genocide,” the ad reads, under a picture of the National Security Adviser superimposed on the image of human skulls. The text goes on to suggest she has been more gracious in her dealings with Iran’s government than Israel’s. “She should treat our ally with at least as much diplomatic courtesy as she does the committed enemy of both our nations.”

Obama Administration officials were quick to condemn the move. “This ad is being widely met with the revulsion that it deserves,” a senior U.S. Administration official said. “Frankly, the ad says more about those who supported it than it says about Susan Rice.”

Netanyahu has a long track record of using addresses to Congress for his domestic political purposes. “I am leaving for Washington on a fateful, even historic, mission. I feel that I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish People,” Netanyahu told reporters before departing. His coalition faces a close election on March 17.

In the U.S., the visit has turned into a political weapon. “The really only conflict here is between the White House and Israel,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

At AIPAC, Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, sought to challenge that message. “The circumstances surrounding the invitation were not what they should have been,” he said. “We all understand that. But don’t lose focus. The bad guy is Iran.”

In Israel as well, the terms of the visit had become a point of political debate. “Netanyahu’s speech is diverting the question to be on whether he should speak or not in Congress rather than the security issue with Iran, and we think this is wrong,” said Israeli opposition Knesset member Erel Margalit. “We saw a poll that had the American public divided over whether Netanyahu should speak or not, instead of having 90% against the threshold nuclear state of Iran, which would have united everyone.”

To pre-empt claims that the White House has not sufficiently supported Israel, the National Security Council forwarded Democratic allies—and later posted online—a pocket card highlighting the U.S.-Israel relationship under Obama casting the President as a “strong defender” of Israel. “Under President Obama’s leadership, American engagement with Israel has grown and strengthened to an unprecedented degree,” it reads. The handout did not include any mention of Iran.

“The Administration doesn’t want to talk about the Iran deal — so instead of hearing about sanctions relief and sunset clauses, we’ve had weeks of high-school-level melodrama about speech protocol and a bad guy named Bibi,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the hawkish Emergency Committee for Israel. “The Administration has temporarily distracted from the Iran talks, but it’s also turned the Netanyahu speech into the Super Bowl of foreign policy. In the end it may turn out that Obama only drew more attention to what a bad deal he’s trying to cut with Iran.”

TIME Israel

Israeli Leader Arrives in U.S. for ‘Historic’ Mission

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington, D.C., on Sunday for a controversial visit that the leader described as “a fateful, even historic mission.”

“I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me,” Netanyahu said on Twitter as he departed. “I am deeply and genuinely concerned for the security of all Israelis, for the fate of the nation, and for the fate of our people. I will do my utmost to ensure our future.”

Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election this month, will address Congress on Tuesday to express his opposition to a possible nuclear deal with Iran — a speech President Barack Obama’s top national-security aide has said will be “destructive” to U.S.-Israel relations.

The visit has further strained relations between Israel and the Obama Administration, which was not consulted before House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress. Obama is not planning to meet with Netanyahu while he’s in town, and a few dozen Democrats are expected to boycott the speech, which has been criticized as interference in Israeli politics just two weeks before an election.

The planned speech, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said Tuesday, has “injected a degree of partisanship, which is not only unfortunate, I think it’s destructive [to] the fabric of the relationship.”

Secretary of State John Kerry sought to cool the tensions a bit over the weekend, first in a phone call with Netanyahu on Saturday and then in comments Sunday, when he said the Israeli leader is “welcome to speak in the United States, obviously,” and that the Obama Administration doesn’t want the speech to become “some great political football.”

“Obviously it was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an Administration was not included in this process,” Kerry said on ABC’s This Week. “But the Administration is not seeking to politicize this.”

Netanyahu’s camp also tried to lower the temperature. “We are not here to offend President Obama, whom we respect very much,” an aide told the Associated Press.

As he left for Washington, Netanyahu reiterated his opposition to a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. He is set to speak Monday at the annual conference for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel group.

“We are strongly opposed to the agreement being formulated between the world powers and Iran that could endanger Israel’s very existence,” Netanyahu said.

Read next: 7 Times World Leaders Addressed Congress

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TIME russia

5 Disputed Numbers That Explain Geopolitics

Ukraine
Vadim Ghirda—AP Russia-backed separatist fighters stand next to self propelled 152 mm artillery pieces, part of a unit moved away from the front lines, in Yelenovka, near Donetsk, Ukraine, Feb. 26, 2015.

From Argentina’s economic woes to Iran’s nuclear timeline, statistics that are up for debate can tell us a lot about geopolitics. 

Every world leader uses data for political purposes. But some take it a step further. Here are five disputed stats where the controversy itself sheds light on a deeper political question.

1. How many Russians are in Ukraine?

Estimates of Russian troops in Ukraine differ dramatically depending on which side of the border you’re standing on. (That is, if you can find the border—Russian-backed separatists continue to take territory in southeast Ukraine). Ukrainian President Poroshenko proclaimed last month that there are more than 9,000 Russian troops and 500 tanks and armored vehicles in his country. But Russia claims it isn’t that many—zero, to be exact. According to a spokesman for Putin, “there are no Russian tanks or army in Ukraine.” Other players split the difference: in August, a separatist leader claimed that 3,000 to 4,000 Russian citizen “volunteers” provided assistance to the rebels.

(Reuters, CNN, LA Times)

2. How quickly could Iran build a nuclear weapon?

When Western leaders emphasize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, there’s a recurring, essential question: How long would it take for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a bomb? Iran consistently downplays the threat: an Iranian source cited the ‘breakout time’ at a minimum of 18 months. But Washington believes it’s drastically shorter: about 2-3 months. There’s also fierce debate about how long that breakout time should be. In ongoing nuclear negotiations, the Obama administration wants to ensure it would take at least a year. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to eliminate Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons altogether.

(Reuters, Institute for Science and International Security, New York Times)

3. Can China boast that its economy is #1?

Last year, the International Monetary Fund projected that China’s economy was about to overtake the United States’ when measured on a purchasing power basis (a less common way of measuring GDP that takes exchange rates into account). China became the world’s largest trading nation back in 2012. But even China is pushing back against any perception that it’s on top: the state-run news agency Xinhua ran a piece in January titled “China denies being world’s No. 1 economy.” Beijing is careful to stress that it’s still very much a developing country, not yet wealthy enough to take on a lot of global responsibilities. They have a point. Despite relentless growth—last year’s economic output topped $10 trillion, more than five times higher than a decade before—China’s output per person is still nowhere near that of the U.S.

(New York Times, Bloomberg, Xinhua, Economist)

4. Just how valuable for Americans would the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) be?

One of President Obama’s biggest foreign policy priorities before he leaves office is to ink the TPP, a trade agreement that includes a dozen countries that collectively account for 40% of world trade and roughly a third of global GDP. The administration is quick to point out the estimated economic benefits. According to John Kerry, “TPP could provide $77 billion a year in real income and support 650,000 new jobs in the U.S. alone.” But not everyone buys that jobs claim. The White House’s statistics come from a 2012 book by the Peterson Institute that didn’t provide a precise jobs estimate. The book’s author said he avoided doing so because, “like most trade economists, we don’t believe that trade agreements change the labor force in the long run.”

(Congressional Research Service, Washington Post)

5. How is Argentina’s economy doing?

Argentina’s economic troubles are common knowledge. So is the government’s tendency to cast the numbers in a rosier light. The government claimed 30% growth in GDP from 2007 to 2012 (5.3% annual average rate), but a study last year claimed that GDP only grew half that much and the size of the economy was at least 12% smaller than official government estimates. Then there’s the issue of inflation. The government estimates 21% inflation for this year—but some private economists expect a rate of nearly 40%. Furthermore, the government’s official exchange rate doesn’t reflect reality: one U.S. dollar is officially worth about 8.7 pesos, yet the informal rate is as high as 13.

(World Economics Journal, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, BNamericas, Bloomberg)

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Netanyahu’s Upcoming Visit Causes Tension Between the U.S. and Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to address Congress on March 3

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to speak before a joint session of Congress on March 3, but the upcoming speech is already making waves.

Watch the latest #KnowRightNow to catch up on this developing story.

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Says World Powers ‘Have Given Up’ on Preventing Iran Nukes

Israeli PM Netanyahu weekly cabinet meeting
Abir Sultan—Reuters Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Feb. 15, 2015.

Israeli Prime Minister says he's not willing to give up on preventing Iran's progress toward developing nuclear weapons

In his sharpest criticism yet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says world powers “have given up” on stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons in ongoing negotiations.

Netanyahu made the comments Wednesday night at a meeting of his Likud Party outside of Jerusalem. They come as Netanyahu plans to address the U.S. Congress on the nuclear negotiations.

The West fears Iran could build an atomic bomb with its nuclear program. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.

Netanyahu said: “From the agreement that is forming it appears that they (world powers) have given up on that commitment and are accepting that Iran will gradually, within a few years, develop capabilities to produce material for many nuclear weapons. They might accept this but I am not willing to accept this.”

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