Netanyahu is leading Israel to pariah status – Obama
Netanyahu and Obama. Photo by Jim Young/ Reuters
By Jeffrey Goldberg, Bloomberg news
January 14, 2013
Shortly after the United Nations General Assembly voted in late November to upgrade the status of the Palestinians, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that it would advance plans to establish a settlement in an area of the West Bank known as E-1, and that it would build 3,000 additional housing units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
A large settlement in E-1, an empty zone between Jerusalem and the Jewish settlement city of Maaleh Adumim, would make the goal of politically moderate Palestinians — the creation of a geographically contiguous state — much harder to achieve.
The world reacted to the E-1 announcement in the usual manner: It condemned the plans as a provocation and an injustice. President Barack Obama’s administration, too, criticized it. “We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations or achieve a two-state solution,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
But what didn’t happen in the White House after the announcement is actually more interesting than what did.
When informed about the Israeli decision, Obama, who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, didn’t even bother getting angry. He told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart.
In the weeks after the UN vote, Obama said privately and repeatedly, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation.
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. Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.
The dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is poised to enter a new phase. Next week, Israeli voters will probably return Netanyahu to power, this time at the head of a coalition even more intractably right-wing than the one he currently leads.
Obama has always had a complicated relationship with the prime minister. On matters of genuine security, Obama has been a reliable ally, encouraging close military cooperation, helping maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over its regional rivals and, most important, promising that he won’t allow Iran to cross the nuclear-weapons threshold.
Yet even this support didn’t keep Netanyahu from pulling for Republican candidate Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential campaign.
On matters related to the Palestinians, the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Obama’s nominee to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, is said to be eager to re-energize the Middle East peace process, but Obama — who already has a Nobel Peace Prize — is thought to be considerably more wary. He views the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as weak, but he has become convinced that Netanyahu is so captive to the settler lobby, and so uninterested in making anything more than the slightest conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian moderates, that an investment of presidential interest in the peace process wouldn’t be a wise use of his time.
Obama, since his time in the Senate, has been consistent in his analysis of Israel’s underlying challenge: If it doesn’t disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state.
For Israel, the short-term consequences of Obama’s frustration are limited. The U.S. won’t cut off its aid to Israel, and Obama’s effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions will continue whether or not he’s fed up with Netanyahu.
But it is in terms of American diplomatic protection — among the Europeans and especially at the UN — that Israel may one day soon notice a significant shift. During November’s vote on Palestine’s status, the U.S. supported Israel and asked its allies to do the same. In the end, they were joined by a total of seven other countries, including the Pacific powerhouses Palau and Micronesia.
When such an issue arises again, Israel may find itself even lonelier. It wouldn’t surprise me if the U.S. failed to whip votes the next time, or if the U.S. actually abstained. I wouldn’t be particularly surprised, either, if Obama eventually offered a public vision of what a state of Palestine should look like, and affirmed that it should have its capital in East Jerusalem.
Obama isn’t making unreasonable demands. Israeli concerns about the turmoil in Syria and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood are legitimate in the American view, and Obama knows that broad territorial compromise by Israel in such an unstable environment is unlikely. But what Obama wants is recognition by Netanyahu that Israel’s settlement policies are foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution, and he wants Netanyahu to acknowledge that a two-state solution represents the best chance of preserving the country as a Jewish-majority democracy. Obama wants, in other words, for Netanyahu to act in Israel’s best interests.
So far, though, there has been no sign that the Israeli government is gaining a better understanding of the world in which it lives.
Senior Likud officials charge US president with leaking sharp criticism of Netanyahu to media in order to sway votes.
By Gil Hoffman and Herb Keinon
January 15, 2013
Senior Likud officials accused US President Barack Obama on Tuesday of leaking sharp criticism of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s leadership to columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in order to sway voters in next Tuesday’s election.
Goldberg quoted Obama in a Bloomberg piece as having said privately that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”
A sharp critic himself of Netanyahu and the country’s settlement policies, Goldberg wrote that “with each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near isolation.”
The columnist noted that Obama’s comment had come shortly after the November 29 UN General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinians’ status, a move followed by Netanyahu’s announcement that he would advance plans to develop E1 and build 3,000 units in east Jerusalem and the settlement blocs.
According to Goldberg, Obama “told several people that sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart.”
Obama chose Goldberg, who is believed to have good White House contacts, to get across a message on Iran before he addressed AIPAC and met Netanyahu in the White House in March. The columnist wrote that “on matters related to the Palestinians the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.”
He added that he would not be surprised if Obama “eventually offered a public vision of what a state of Palestine should look like, and affirmed that it should have its capital in East Jerusalem.”
Goldberg also said Obama wanted Netanyahu to recognize that Israel’s settlement policies were dooming a twostate solution, and to acknowledge that such a solution represented the best chance of preserving “the country as a Jewish-majority democracy.”
Sources close to Netanyahu responded carefully, saying that the prime minister would continue to protect the country’s vital national security interests in the coming government that he would lead. The Sources noted that Obama had said Israeli-US defense and security cooperation were at unprecedented levels, which was evident in US support for Israeli missile defense systems and diplomatic backing during operation Pillar of Defense.
But Likud officials accused Obama of “gross interference” in the Israeli election and said the president was “taking revenge” against Netanyahu for his perceived intervention in the November US election on behalf of unsuccessful Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The officials said Obama had been swayed against Netanyahu by President Shimon Peres and former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, who heads the Likud’s response team, said Goldberg was merely a dovish publicist trumpeting the views of the American far-Left.
“This is gossip a journalist wrote, and the facts suggest that the opposite is true,” Erdan said. “Israelis expect their prime minister not to give in to pressure, even if it would give them applause in the United States.”
Likud MK Danny Danon, who wrote an anti-Obama book, ironically defended Goldberg, saying that US Jews had a right to an opinion on Israel, no matter where they were on the political map. He expressed hope that Goldberg would continue writing against Netanyahu ahead of the election.
“Any interference will just give us more seats,” Danon wrote.
Goldberg told The Jerusalem Post that he was amused by the reactions of Israeli politicians, especially accusations that he had conspired with the Israeli Left to maximize damage to Netanyahu. He said what he had written was consistent with statements Obama had made in the past about the need for Israel’s friends to hold up a mirror and tell the truth.
“In the administration, they saw that after Obama supported Israel in the Gaza conflict and at the UN, the next day Netanyahu wanted to build a new settlement in E1, and they threw up their hands in frustration,” Goldberg said. “I have picked up this chatter in the White House over the past two weeks, so I wrote it. I’m a journalist, writing about what’s happening, not trying to steer an Israeli election.”
When told about Erdan’s criticism of him, the columnist said, “That’s fine. Blame the messenger, but those who say that Obama and Bibi’s relationship is healthy are deluding themselves.”
Asked whether Obama wanted Netanyahu to win the election, Goldberg said he had no idea.
On Sunday, Netanyahu received an endorsement from a well-known Republican: casino magnate and fierce Obama critic Donald Trump. But the announcement of the endorsement was delayed for two days and released after the Goldberg column, which reinforced accusations that Netanyahu was too close to the Republicans at the expense of the Democrats in charge of the White House.
“You truly have a great prime minister,” Trump said. “There is nobody like him. He is a winner, he is highly respected, he is highly thought of by all.”
Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni tried to capitalize on the media frenzy created by Goldberg’s article at a Tel Aviv press conference.
“All of the people of Israel should have been woken up by Obama saying the prime minister was leading Israel to grave isolation,” Livni said.
“As an Israeli, it is hard for me to hear it, but it’s important to know that this is happening.
If people don’t change their vote, Netanyahu will continue leading us to isolation, violence and a worse economy, because it’s all connected.”
At the press conference, Livni presented a diplomatic plan that included cleaning Israel’s slate with Obama, receiving American assurances about Israel keeping settlement blocs and Palestinian refugees not returning, and beginning direct talks with the Palestinians with the involvement of the European Union, Turkey and the Arab League.
According to the plan, Israel would reach an agreement on borders of a demilitarized Palestinian state, but would not withdraw until security considerations for the West Bank and Gaza Strip were set with the Palestinians.
Livni declined to reveal what she gave up when she negotiated with the Palestinians as foreign minister.
“As someone who worked with world leaders, a peace deal is not in the sky,” Livni said. “If we don’t advance peace, the dangers will multiply, and the result will be disaster for Israel.”
She also blasted Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, saying that “the diplomatic negotiations and all diplomatic and security issues don’t interest her, and she doesn’t understand them.”
Yacimovich responded that Livni had been foreign minister for three years and hadn’t advanced the peace process by an inch.
“Not only are [Livni’s] contributions to the diplomatic process zero, her behavior is sabotaging chances of enabling me to replace Netanyahu and move the peace process forward,” Yacimovich said.
By Dan Williams, Reuters
January 16, 2012
JERUSALEM – Long-strained ties between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu sprang to the fore of Israel’s election campaign on Wednesday after the U.S. president was quoted as criticizing the prime minister’s character.
Less than a week before a January 22 ballot that opinion polls predict the right-wing Netanyahu will win easily, Israeli media highlighted a U.S. commentator’s column on Obama and asked whether the Democratic president was trying to sway the vote.
“Obama said privately and repeatedly, ‘Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are’,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg.
The U.S. president “seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise”, Goldberg said.
The White House has not commented on the column’s content.
Netanyahu appeared to chide Obama, without mentioning the president or his reported remarks, during a visit on Wednesday to an army base near Gaza.
“I think everyone understands that only Israeli citizens will be the ones who determine who faithfully represents Israel’s vital interests,” Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks.
Obama and Netanyahu have been at odds over Israel’s settlement building in the occupied West Bank and heavy Israeli hints of possible military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Some Israeli commentators saw the column as payback for Netanyahu’s perceived back-room lobbying on behalf of Republican Mitt Romney in his failed run against Obama in November’s U.S. election. Netanyahu has denied any such meddling.
Though it was front-page news in Israel, Goldberg’s column looks unlikely to dent Netanyahu’s electoral lead, with his Likud-Beiteinu list expected to take around 34 of parliament’s 120 seats and form the next coalition government. A centrist challenger, former Foreign Minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, has made Israel’s international isolation under Netanyahu the focus of her campaign. Her party has lagged in polls with a projected 6 to 8 parliamentary seats.
“Attempts to speak to the Israeli voter through the American press are total non-starters,” said Amotz Asa-El, a fellow with the Hartman Institute, a liberal think-tank in Jerusalem. Most Israelis, Asa-El argued, were disenchanted by frozen peace efforts, worried by regional upheaval and preoccupied with domestic affairs. Foreign criticism of Netanyahu, he said, could shore him up against rivals further to the right.
“These (far-rightists) have never heard of Bloomberg, let alone of Jeffrey Goldberg. If anything, this (criticism) is likely to make them vote for Netanyahu,” Asa-El said. “There is no traffic of undecided voters between the rightist bloc and the centre-left bloc, only within the blocs.”
Several Israeli officials questioned whether the quotes attributed to Obama reflected the view of his administration, which, like the Netanyahu government, has played up the strength of bilateral ties on issues ranging from the Palestinians to the Syrian insurgency and Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Vice premier Silvan Shalom, of the Likud party, told Israel’s Army Radio: “I don’t know if these things were said because he (Obama) did not say them in his own voice.” Shalom appeared to acknowledge tensions between Netanyahu and Obama. But he praised the U.S. president’s tack on Iran – Israel’s main regional worry – and said bilateral ties trumped personal “baggage”.
“I have seen many countries where the relationship between the leaders was good but there were no common interests and thus no cooperation. By contrast, in other places where there were interests but, perhaps, the relationships were less good, the interests were ultimately what took precedent,” Shalom said.