Joe Lieberman at Haifa University
Joe Lieberman at Haifa UniversityUniversity of Haifa

Relations between Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama are not quite as bad as they have been made out to be - and things could yet improve in the coming months, according to former leading Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman.

Speaking at Haifa University Tuesday, Lieberman - who served as Senator from 1988-2012, during which time he was nominated as the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate - did acknowledge that the personal relationship between the two was far from perfect.

Lieberman was the keynote speaker at the opening of the third session of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa.

"My feeling is that the personal relations between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are not as bad as the media like to make out, although there is no doubt they aren't where they need to be when you're talking about such a close friendship," he said.

But he claimed the final 14 months of the Obama administration will be less characterized by strained relations with Israel than previously, and that Israel will particularly benefit from strong support within Congress, particularly from pro-Israel Democrats who opposed the nuclear deal with Iran in principle but voted for it out of allegiance to their president.

Lieberman opined that in his opinion the deal was a mistake, and cautioned against trusting the Iranian regime. He also related to the huge amount of money Tehran will receive as a result of lifting sanctions under the terms of the agreement - a portion of which even the Obama administration has admitted will certainly go towards funding terrorism.

"Even if the Iranians transfer 10% of that money to the terrorist organizations which they support like Hezbollah and Hamas, we're talking about something between 10-15 million dollars. These are amounts which could enable them to cause a lot of harm," Lieberman noted.

He didn't hold back from criticizing Obama during his keynote address, claiming that this White House's central pillar of foreign policy was simply not to be like the Bush administration.

"The policy is that if the previous president would have entered us into war, President Obama will get us out of wars. This is a great idea, but when war is declared upon you you can't stand on the outside.

"There is no doubt that ISIS has declared war on us, but even Iran has demonstrated towards us the most hostile sentiments they could possibly demonstrate."

Syria was his biggest bone of contention with Obama's conduct. Lieberman noted that when the civil war first broke out, the rebel movement was not the Islamist-dominated movement it is today, but rather was led by and comprised largely of "true Syrian patriots," who simply wanted to oust Assad. However, the lack of support from the United States and the West in general enabled jihadists and other Islamist elements to infiltrate ranks and eventually dominate the opposition movement, flush with cash and arms from rich gulf donors and others.

"It is still not too late," to change things, "but it is very late," he warned.

"History in my opinion will judge our involvement in Syria as the nadir of the Obama administration - but I hope the situation will still change."

Lieberman ended by addressing the relations between Israel and US Jewry, which is largely positive but has sometimes been marked by tensions.

The Jewish former Senator broke the US Jewish community down into three rough parts: those who support Israel no matter what; those who love Israel but "not unconditionally"; and those who are either indifferent to Israel or actively hostile towards it.

"There is no doubt that there has been an increase in the third group," particularly among under 40s, he warned.

Ignoring such trends in US Jewry is dangerous and Israel needs to engage with disengaged Jewish youth to demonstrate, among other things, the pluralism and variety of opinions in Israeli society.

"That's why the American-Jewish studies program here at Haifa University has such great importance," he said.