US picks apart Israeli leader’s election rhetoric

Analysis: Personal pique and testy relations with Netanyahu overshadow foreign policy position

President Barack Obama with Israeli prime minister Binyamin  Netanyahu. The White House has castigated  Netanyahu for comments made on the election stump. Photograph:  Jason Reed/Reuters

President Barack Obama with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The White House has castigated Netanyahu for comments made on the election stump. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters

 

It is fair to say that relations between the United States and Israel are at their poorest in decades. Allegations of spying, interference in domestic politics and bellicose election rhetoric have weakened ties between two countries that were once the closest of allies.

Even before recent election campaign pronouncements alarmed the White House, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was already in the Obama administration’s bad books after he accepted an invitation from Republican speaker of the house of representatives John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress earlier this month and warn against the dangers of a nuclear deal with Iran, a key ambition of Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Political debate

As those talks head toward a critical end-of-March deadline for the announcement of a broad outline of a deal, the White House has castigated Netanyahu for comments made on the election stump.

In a weekend interview with the Huffington Post, Obama condemned Netanyahu’s election-day warning to voters that Israeli Arabs, who account for about one-fifth of Israel’s population, were “being bused to polling stations in droves” by left-wing organisations.

“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is best of Israel’s traditions,” said Obama, adding that these comments give “ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state”.

The Israeli leader apologised for the comments, but his post-election backpedalling has not convinced the White House.

In a speech at the annual conference of the J Street pro-Israel group aligned with American Democrats on Monday, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough described as “very troubling” Netanyahu’s announcement the day before the election that he was opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state if re-elected to a fourth term.

Netanyahu has attempted to roll back on these comments, telling the Democrat-leaning US television network MSNBC that he had not shifted from his 2009 position on a two-state solution based on a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state.

The White House is not buying it, believing that things said in the campaign cannot be unsaid.

“We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made,” McDonough said in his speech.

The Obama aide went further, calling for an end to Israel’s almost half-century occupation of the West Bank.

He denied that “personal pique” with Netanyahu was the reason for this hardline approach from the US administration to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, although it is hard to see how it has not become a factor in recent weeks.

Obama yesterday rejected the framing of the dispute as a personal clash between him and Netanyahu, saying he had a very “business-like” relationship with the prime minister.

“This can’t be reduced to a matter of, let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya,” he told reporters at a press conference.

The US, he said, would evaluate whether to support a Palestinian state at the United Nations, which would represent a major shift in foreign policy and an acceptance that the Israel is unwilling to engage in direct talks with the Palestinians.

Play it down

Natan SachsBrookings Institution

“This would blow over or mostly be a matter of bad personal relations if it weren’t for deep differences on two policy positions.”

Those are namely the Iranian talks and the Palestinian question.

The administration’s gloves-off treatment of Netanyahu comes as US secretary of state John Kerry aims to make significant progress in the days ahead on the Iranian talks.

Forceful comments by senior administration figures will help counter the inevitable Israeli opposition rhetoric to come on the Iranian talks and paint Netanyahu as an uncompromising figure as the Americans try to seek a diplomatic solution.

Adding to the US-Israeli rift is the Wall Street Journal report yesterday that Israel spied on Iran’s nuclear talks with the US and fed inside information to American lawmakers in an effort to undermine support for a deal with Tehran. The report, which was clearly leaked by US administration officials, was strenuously denied by the Israelis.

For two purported allies, simmering tensions after the heat of an acrimonious election campaign are feeding mistrust and turning relations with Israel into a difficult partisan issue in Washington.