Netanyahu Seeks to Defuse Obama Spat With Action on Palestinians – Bloomberg Business
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to reset Israel’s relations with the White House.
Six years of feuding over Iran and peace efforts with the Palestinians turned unprecedentedly acrimonious with Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress criticizing the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran. His decision to release hundreds of millions of dollars his government withheld from the Palestinians was a bid to lower the flames, a confidant said.
“We would like to do what we can to remove the unnecessary hindrances in our relationship with the U.S.,” Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Netanyahu and former ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview. An Israeli government official, speaking anonymously to comment on confidential discussions, confirmed that repairing relations was a factor in decisions concerning the Palestinians.
Taking on President Barack Obama may help Netanyahu at home, yet it’s boomeranged against him in the international arena, where the Palestinians are campaigning to isolate Israel and prosecute it for war crimes. The U.S. leader has already said he is reexamining his country’s opposition to Palestinian moves to win statehood recognition at the United Nations.
Netanyahu and Obama must also deal with each other as they confront other challenges in the Middle East, including rising Islamic extremism and the war in Syria.
Any respite from their sparring, however, may be short-lived as debate heats up over the proposed agreement to lift economic sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program. Netanyahu says the deal, which is to be fleshed out into a final accord by June 30, threatens Israel’s survival by not guaranteeing the Iranians will be prevented from using their nuclear technology for a weapons program.
“Neither side want to have an open conflict, but Netanyahu will certainly continue to criticize the Iran talks and there isn’t much he can deliver on the actual peace process,” Robbie Sabel, a former Israeli diplomat in Washington and professor of international law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Some irritation is inevitable.”
Throughout the frictions, U.S. support for Israel has remained strong. The U.S. gives Israel about $3.1 billion a year in military aid. Under Obama, it has boosted funding for joint development of missile defense systems and increased joint military exercises with Israel.
Netanyahu’s overtures to the White House include his agreement to release $470 million in levies collected on behalf of the Palestinians. The money was withheld after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in January that he would seek Israel’s prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
Israel also agreed to give greater freedom of movement to Palestinians on its roads, enable a new West Bank city to receive its first residents and increase the flow of water to the Gaza Strip.
On a rhetorical level, Netanyahu has eased up on what had been daily assaults on the Iran deal.
“There’s a lot of repair that needs to be done,” said Shimon Stein, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Whatever we have to discuss we have to discuss in a quiet manner, not going publicly and articulating positions that we may later come to regret.”
Obama, too, has signaled he wants to dial down the rancor. He dispatched Vice President Joe Biden this month to speak at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day celebration in Washington. There, Biden reaffirmed the U.S. would deliver a delayed order of its most advanced fighter jets to help Israel maintain its “qualitative advantage against any potential opponent,” according to a White House transcript.
The president made fun of the feud, quipping that he’s grown so old Netanyahu has been invited back to Washington “to speak at my funeral.”
“There’s no doubt it was toxic,” Martin Indyk, the chief U.S. mediator in last year’s failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, said in an April 10 Bloomberg Television interview. “Now, I think both sides are kind of stepping back.”
The prime minister angered the Obama administration by accepting Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress on the dangers of the emerging nuclear pact. The invitation wasn’t coordinated with the White House.
Two weeks later, Netanyahu questioned a pillar of the White House’s Middle East policy, the establishment of an independent state of Palestine under a peace deal with Israel. In an interview with the Maariv newspaper a day before Israel’s March 17 election, which won him a fourth term, Netanyahu suggested a Palestinian state wouldn’t be established on his watch. He later said his comments were misconstrued.
Neither move hurt him electorally: Netanyahu’s Likud increased its strength in the 120-member parliament to 30 seats from 18. Many Israelis view Obama with suspicion: A poll published by the Times of Israel in February showed 72 percent of Israelis don’t trust Obama to ensure Iran won’t develop a nuclear bomb. The poll of 824 people had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Even with strong domestic backing, Netanyahu will have to avoid letting confrontations go too far.
“There are a myriad of things the executive branch can do to make life uncomfortable for Netanyahu,” Sabel said, citing military cooperation. “If the Pentagon gets a hint that the White House wants things to slow down, things will slow down.”
The relationship with Obama is still “awfully important to Israel,” he said.