White House to Benjamin Netanyahu: Your move – POLITICO
A dozen Jewish House Democrats laid it out for deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes during a meeting in the Longworth House Office Building last week: Enough. They’re just as upset about what Benjamin Netanyahu said ruling out a two-state solution, but President Barack Obama didn’t need to keep reminding them and everyone else.
Obama and his aides, they said, had to stop acting as if the Israeli prime minister’s comments are the only thing holding up a peace process that’s been abandoned for a year while not expressing a word of disappointment about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — and openly toying with allowing the Palestinians their provocative recognition bid at the United Nations. The swipes at Netanyahu felt vindictive, and gratuitous.
The White House has worked to cool down the rhetoric and public tension. But it’s not letting go. When Netanyahu insisted during the congratulatory phone call Obama waited to make that he was already backtracking and they’d get past this, an unimpressed Obama responded by saying, sure, but you said what you said. He and his aides believe it’s now up to Netanyahu to repair a rift that they stress is only about the peace process, not the larger commitment to Israel.
“We’ve made our point. The message has clearly been received,” a White House official said. “The next move is theirs, presumably after the new government has been formed.”
The White House doesn’t have a specific list of demands for Netanyahu, or a timeline to meet them. But after six years of doubting the sincerity of his commitment to a two-state solution and grumbling that he wasn’t doing enough to advance peace, now they say they’re looking for serious moves toward restarting the process.
“You sort of know by actions whether there’s an openness, or whether he’s backing up his words,” said one senior administration official.
Netanyahu may not be able to wait longer than September, when the next U.N. General Assembly meets, to prove himself to the White House. So far, administration officials insist they’ve still made no decisions about what to do when Palestinians make the renewed push they’ve promised.
On the night of the Israeli elections, top people in the West Wing were holding out hope for the opposition even as the exit polls rolled in. They’ve gone very public with their complaint about Netanyahu in the two weeks since as they’ve internalized that he really will be the Israeli leader for Obama’s whole presidency, years of animosity brought to a boil by a speech to Congress that was unprecedented in having a foreign leader attack White House policy from the House floor.
Both Obama and Netanyahu seem to think they’re winning. The administration is convinced that Netanyahu has been shown for the insincere agitator that they believe he is, while the prime minister’s aides are convinced that Obama’s bias against Israel has finally been demonstrated for all to see.
The tense Rhodes meeting was meant to be the latest in regular briefings he’s been doing with Jewish members of Congress about the Iran nuclear negotiations. The aggressive approach to Netanyahu was a problem, they told him, since the White House has made clear that it will be looking for their support in convincing people that the deal they’re hoping to get with Iran doesn’t put Israel in danger. (On Sunday, Netanyahu said the negotiations in Switzerland were turning out even worse than he’d expected.)
“You want us to go out and say the administration’s got Israel’s back. How are you going to get us to say that when our constituents believe that the administration is stabbing Israel in the back?” one Democratic Jewish member of Congress said later.
Among those present were Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
Rhodes declined comment on the meeting.
Ironically, the flare-up with Netanyahu has Obama re-emphasizing a peace process he’d been ambivalent about for years. Even the pushback on Netanyahu’s comments nixing the two-state solution took several days. The administration initially brushed them off as things said in the heat of a political campaign, but then, as his comments drew more public attention, officials quickly ramped up talk of a betrayal.
“There wasn’t a process to be killed,” the administration official acknowledged, but in going forward with Netanyahu, “It’s: What is your policy that’s driving your decision making?”
Multiple administration officials say they believe they’ve already succeeded in lowering the temperature. Rhodes left the meeting on the Hill agreeing to relay a message of tamping down the rhetoric. Obama himself tried when asked about Netanyahu at a news conference he held Tuesday, and through the week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest went out of his way to avoid piling on any more in his daily briefings.
That’s more than just making nice: By backing off the public fight, the White House feels it puts even more pressure on Netanyahu to deliver. On Friday, he released bottled-up tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, but the White House wants him to take more conciliatory actions, like swearing off new settlements as he finalizes his coalition in the coming weeks.
But there’s only so much stock the White House puts in the complaints that have been coming at them. What the Jewish House Democrats told Rhodes in that meeting last week, another senior administration official noted, matched what they had already been hearing from the Israelis and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Rhodes insisted that Netanyahu’s the one at fault, according to one person with knowledge of the meeting. And he said what Obama and his aides have been stressing at every chance: The peace process approach is the only issue that’s being reevaluated within the larger U.S.-Israeli relationship, with America now needing to join other leading nations in the world in thinking about other options.
But reflecting how difficult they’re finding navigating their loyalties to Obama, Israel and their constituents, multiple members of Congress who attended the meeting with Rhodes avoided discussing it or their feelings about the breakdown.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) was invited but did not attend the meeting, though he’s in regular contact with the administration and the Israelis, including convening a dinner last week for himself and four non-Jewish Democratic freshmen with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer.
Israel, who since the uproar over Netanyahu’s speech to Congress began has positioned himself as a mediator of sorts among frustrated Jews on the Hill, the White House and the Israelis, said he feels that both the White House and the prime minister’s office are slowly turning a corner.
“I believe that both understand that the dialogue needs to be defused and not intensified,” Israel said.
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