Obama gets kind of tough with Netanyahu

The Los Angeles Times says: “a dispute this week between the Obama administration and Israel has ballooned into the biggest U.S.-Israeli clash in 20 years.”

Tom Friedman says: “what the Israelis did played right into a question a lot of people are asking about the Obama team: how tough are these guys? The last thing the president needs, at a time when he is facing down Iran and China — not to mention Congress — is to look like America’s most dependent ally can push him around.”

But then Washington hit back — bam!

This is how Aluf Benn describes Obama’s get-tough approach:

Washington delivered its rebuke to Netanyahu through a number of channels. There was the extended censure by telephone from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a phone call from Biden, the summoning of Israel’s ambassador to Washington to the office of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, the condemnation from the Quartet and, perhaps most important, a media briefing Clinton delivered during a CNN interview which escalated private rebukes into a full-blown public reprimand.

The reproofs were reminiscent of the “low chair diplomacy” the Turkish ambassador to Jerusalem was subjected to by the Israeli Foreign Ministry at the beginning of the year. The media was informed that the conversation between Clinton and Netanyahu lasted 43 minutes, “rather than 10 minutes as usual,” and that the prime minister barely uttered a word.

Obama himself reportedly worded the message to be delivered to Netanyahu during his weekly Thursday meeting with Clinton, lest the argument be made that it was merely the secretary of state scolding the Israeli leader, and not the U.S. president himself.

A State Department spokesman described the conversation using phrases which bring to mind a teacher castigating a student, not a working discussion with the leader of a friendly country and ally.

The substance was no less damning than the form – Clinton spoke of an “insult” to the United States and of “harming bilateral ties.” She could not understand, she said, how such a thing could have been done in light of America’s strong obligation to Israel’s security. U.S. media interpreted these remarks as suggesting that Washington’s military support for Israel is hardly unconditional.

Clinton dismissed Netanyahu’s explanation that the decision to approve the housing plan was made without his knowledge, reminding him that as prime minister he is responsible for his government’s actions.

The statements from the United States were publicized Friday evening – Shabbat – while Israel was officially unable to respond, therefore affording the White House a media exclusive. The instinctive reaction from Netanyahu and his associates was to accuse Washington of a diplomatic ambush, to simply rely on the support of his backers in the United States. Indeed, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was the first to charge the White House with “humiliating” the Israeli prime minister.

This week presents Netanyahu with a difficult decision. He may choose to visit Washington as planned to speak at the AIPAC conference, which would embarrass the preeminent pro-Israel lobby and put it on a collision course with the Obama administration. Senior U.S. officials will likely decline meetings with him, unless he agrees to at least some of Washington’s conditions. Canceling his flight, however, will be interpreted as acknowledgment of the crisis in U.S.-Israel ties.

High drama! But will it be of any lasting consequence? I really doubt it.

To put this in perspective we should not forget that the initiative the Obama administration is in a desperate effort to salvage — so-called proximity talks — is one that virtually no one had any confidence would accomplish anything in the first place. A successful resolution to the current dispute means getting this initiative back on a track that leads nowhere.

The Jerusalem District Planning and Building committee has canceled two meetings planned for this week. Big deal. It can reschedule them in a few weeks once America and the media are suitably distracted by current events. Indeed, the closer mid-term elections come, the greater this administration’s interests will be in restoring cordial relations with Israel.

Daniel Levy, a former adviser to then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, says the administration is trying to “lay down a marker with [Netanyahu] that they will not allow him to make them look weak,” and no doubt that is true, but this is a marker on a movable line.

Nothing Netanyahu does or refrains from doing will reverse the perception of weakness that was Obama’s own doing when he caved on the issue of imposing a settlement freeze. To insist that this Israeli prime minister avoid doing anything to embarrass the US president merely underlines the extent to which this president is already highly susceptible to appearing weak.

As for whether the Israeli government has any interest in making meaningful gestures of reconciliation with the Palestinians, Ma’an reports on the latest indication: an order from Israeli authorities for the demolition of a mosque in Nablus, right in the heart of the West Bank.

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5 thoughts on “Obama gets kind of tough with Netanyahu

  1. Alexno

    “High drama! But will it be of any lasting consequence? I really doubt it.”

    Probably you are right.

    However I remain somewhat sceptical. There’s an accumulating load of faux pas coming out of Israel, which are increasingly difficult for the Hasbarists to explain away.

    I don’t know what the consequences of that could be. After all Israeli influence in the US (and in Britain) does not actually depend on public opinion, but rather on individual influence on personalities in power. Still each of these gets a bit more difficult each time, a slipup is made.

    And again there’s no going back. Israel can’t do much better than it does now. But it can do worse.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen Obama’s enemies are murdered from the air — even along with their wives and children.
    If Israel defies him he throws a hissy fit.
    Clearly, el Qaeda made a strategic mistake when they opted for warfare rather than setting up an Islamic America Political Action Committee to buy the US Congress and Senate.

  3. Yigal Arens

    Israel has gotten away with much worse, but given this latest brouhaha I suspect Israeli decisions to build in East Jerusalem will get much more press in the coming weeks and months. Obama will have to say something so he doesn’t look silly — so it doesn’t look like it really *was* just the timing and not the substance that mattered.

    Needless to say, the Israelis can try to get around this simply by building without making public pronouncements about it. It won’t be the first time. They’ve been doing it in the “illegal” settlements for years since they publicly committed to removing them.

  4. John Collins

    All this back and forth sniping and disagreements and much Mideast tension comes back to the Palestinian issue. The reason there has been no real progress on this issue is that Isreal does not want peace … they want the status quo. If Washington were to say to them, “you have x months to make peace with the Palestinians or your on your own”.it might have chance..

  5. Nemo

    Ultimately this is all posturing. Despite the slap upside the head from the Israelis, Biden still said that the relationship is unchanging. It is amazing how entangled the US has allowed itself to become.
    We live under this fallacy that Israel has no partner for peace – who would accept the conditions the Israelis lay down? The conditions are designed to maintain perpetual domination; they are not designed for a long term resolution. They are not designed to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians

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