Obama, Netanyahu seem headed for US-Israel clash
JERUSALEM — Israel’s premier on Wednesday dismissed President Barack Obama’s reported displeasure with his hard-line policies toward the Palestinians, a sign that the two could be headed for a showdown.
Polls suggest Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to win Israel’s elections next week and continue in office.
This week an American columnist with close ties to the White House described Obama’s disdain for Netanyahu, warning that Israel’s all-important relations with the U.S. could suffer in unprecedented ways if the Israeli government doesn’t change its policies.
Such a clash would come at a tense time when regional developments appear to be working against Israel.
Israel and the U.S. are seen as disagreeing over how and when to deal with Iran’s suspect nuclear program, and Islamist parties that Israel perceives as hostile are gaining clout in the Mideast.
As the world deals with those issues, even Israel’s close allies are getting increasingly fed up with what they see as defiant Israeli settlement construction on lands the Palestinians want for a state.
The column Tuesday by Jeffrey Goldberg about Obama’s attitudes toward Netanyahu dominated Israeli news media, leading some Israeli officials to fume that Americans were trying to sway the results of next Tuesday’s parliamentary elections.
Netanyahu seemed to suggest that when reporters asked him to respond to the column in Bloomberg News.
“We all understand that only Israeli citizens will determine who faithfully represents Israel’s vital interests,” he told reporters, dismissing the reported criticism.
In his column, Goldberg wrote that Obama seems to view Netanyahu as a political coward whose unwillingness to make concessions to the Palestinians is plunging his country into diplomatic isolation.
“Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are,” Goldberg cited Obama as saying.
While the U.S. will not cut off aid to Israel or waver on its commitment to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Goldberg wrote, Israel might not be able to count on U.S. vetoes at the U.N. Security Council, as it has in the past, when the world lines up against it.
Goldberg indicated that out of frustration with the peacemaking deadlock, Obama might present his own idea about a future state of Palestine — including endorsing the Palestinian demand to divide Jerusalem between the two sides, a concept Netanyahu rejects.
The White House did not deny the harsh sentiments Goldberg put in Obama’s mouth. The tone and timing of column suggested the U.S. leader might be readying to play hardball with Netanyahu if the prime minister is re-elected — or conversely, wash his hands of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict altogether.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down shortly before Netanyahu’s election in early 2009 and have remained frozen throughout his term, despite Obama’s efforts early in his first term to prod both sides to reach a peace deal. But talks never took off, derailing primarily over Israeli settlement construction.
To sidestep the impasse, the Palestinians went to the United Nations in November to win recognition of a de facto state of Palestine in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in 1967 and still controls to varying degrees.
Israel retaliated by announcing plans for a new settlement construction surge, drawing unusually severe international rebukes.
“With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation,” Goldberg wrote. “And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah, one that alienates even the affections of the U.S., its last steadfast friend, it won’t survive.”
Although diplomatic and security cooperation has remained firm during their overlapping tenures, the two leaders have had prickly relations from the beginning.
During one of Netanyahu’s White House visits, Obama walked out of a meeting with the Israeli leader to eat dinner with his family — an account that Netanyahu’s people deny. On another, the Israeli leader outraged his American hosts by appearing to lecture the president on regional security at a White House photo opportunity.
Some in the U.S. and Israel also perceived Netanyahu as favoring Obama’s challenger in the 2012 presidential race, Mitt Romney.