White House Antagonism Toward Netanyahu Grows – NYT
WASHINGTON — The White House is stepping up its antagonism toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despite his victory in this week’s elections, signaling that it is in no rush to repair a historic rift between the United States and Israel.
The sharpened tone indicates that the Obama administration may be re-evaluating its relationship with its closest ally in the Middle East, having lost patience with Mr. Netanyahu in the closing days of an election campaign in which he spotlighted deep disagreements with President Obama over a Palestinian state and a nuclear deal with Iran.
“You reach a tipping point,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “It’s the culmination of six and a half years of frustration, including some direct hits at the president’s prestige and the office of the presidency.”
The aggressiveness underlines a calculation by Mr. Obama that an international accord with Iran to rein in its nuclear program is within reach despite Mr. Netanyahu’s adamant opposition, and that there is little value in being more conciliatory toward him.
And, domestically, the administration is risking the alienation of a core Democratic constituency of Jewish voters, in part banking on the fact that many of them also are upset with Mr. Netanyahu.
“In a way, the administration has already won,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to Democratic and Republican administrations. “If you get agreement by the end of March, it will be historic in nature, it will have demonstrated that the administration is prepared to willfully stand up to Republican opposition in Congress and to deal with members of its own party who have doubts, and has withstood Israeli pressure.”
In a congratulatory call to Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday that Mr. Obama waited two days to place, the president chided the prime minister for his pre-election declaration that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch.
Although Mr. Netanyahu has since tried to backtrack on those comments, Mr. Obama said that they had nonetheless forced his administration to reassess certain aspects of its policy toward Israel, according to a White House official who offered details of the call only on the condition of anonymity.
For the second consecutive day on Friday, the White House publicly questioned Mr. Netanyahu’s sincerity about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, suggesting that Mr. Obama did not trust him to back Palestinian statehood, a central element of United States policy in the Middle East.
Asked why the president did not take the prime minister at his word about his support for a two-state solution, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, quickly shot back: “Well, I guess the question is, which one?”
“The divergent comments of the prime minister legitimately call into question his commitment to this policy principle and his lack of commitment to what has been the foundation of our policy-making in the region,” Mr. Earnest said.
He said Mr. Netanyahu had raised questions about his “true view” on a two-state solution. “Words matter,” Mr. Earnest said.
On the call between the two leaders, the president also discussed the prime minister’s Election Day comments about Israeli Arabs’ going to the polls in “droves,” which were interpreted widely as an attempt to suppress the Arab vote and prompted outrage in Mr. Obama’s administration and around the world.
The tense conversation came on the same day the White House announced that Denis R. McDonough, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, would deliver the keynote address on Monday to the annual conference of J Street, a pro-Israel group aligned with Democrats that has been fiercely critical of Mr. Netanyahu.
The moves confirmed that instead of acting quickly to smooth over tensions with Mr. Netanyahu that burst to the fore in the weeks running up to the Israeli elections, the White House is stoking the acrimony.
What is less clear is whether the approach will lead to a lasting policy shift or was merely a public round of venting.
“You have a dysfunctional and unproductive relationship which is being played out publicly, and you’re now at the point where there are two options, meltdown or dial-down,” Mr. Miller said.
So far, the White House has stopped short of concrete action to challenge Mr. Netanyahu, such as calling on him to remove his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. An American-born former Republican operative, Mr. Dermer angered the administration when he helped congressional Republicans arrange, without the White House’s knowledge, the prime minister’s speech to Congress this month denouncing Mr. Obama’s efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.
Mr. Earnest said on Friday that it was up to Mr. Netanyahu to decide who should represent Israel in the United States, and that the White House would maintain an “open line of communication” as it reassessed its policy.
Mark Regev, Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman, said on Friday that the prime minister “couldn’t be prouder” of Mr. Dermer, in whom he had “full confidence.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, said the Obama administration’s refusal to allow Mr. Netanyahu to backtrack on his comments against a Palestinian state was appropriate, saying such statements should have consequences.
“In his actions, he’s not actually doing anything to repair the wound or to heal the wound that was opened by his and the ambassador’s actions,” Mr. Ben-Ami said of Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Dermer.
At the same time, Mr. Ben-Ami added, the rift between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu “is built on policy and substantive disagreement, and there’s no erasing that.”
Administration officials have suggested that they may now agree to passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution embodying the principles of a two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders and mutually agreed exchanges of territory, a step that would be anathema to Mr. Netanyahu.
But Mr. Obama assured Mr. Netanyahu in the phone call on Thursday that the United States placed a high priority on its security cooperation with Israel, which receives more than $3 billion a year in American military aid. On Friday, Mr. Earnest said the reassessment of policy that Mr. Obama envisions would not threaten that cooperation.
The schism has exacerbated tension between the White House and the most powerful American pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, with which sitting presidents have traditionally been in lock step. Aipac, which like Mr. Netanyahu is vehemently opposed to the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran, on Friday said the onus was on the White House to repair the breach.
“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the U.S.,” the group said in a statement.
“In contrast to their comments,” the statement continued, “we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East. A solid and unwavering relationship between the U.S. and Israel is in the national security interests of both countries and reflects the values that we both cherish.”