President Obama did it again – he poured a great bucket of icy cold water on Binyamin Netanyahu’s head by implicitly threatening Israel with isolation and worse if they don’t cave in to every Palestinian (and American) demand in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, all while Netanyahu was still en route to America and in no position to respond. At the very least that is the height (or depth) of undiplomatic behaviour, lack of etiquette and just plain rudeness. At most it is the practical betrayal of a loyal ally.
Here are some salient points from Obama’s interview:
What I do believe is that if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction and … if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.
“In today’s world, where power is much more diffuse, where the threats that any state or peoples face can come from non-state actors and asymmetrical threats, and where international cooperation is needed in order to deal with those threats, the absence of international goodwill makes you less safe. The condemnation of the international community can translate into a lack of cooperation when it comes to key security interests. It means reduced influence for us, the United States, in issues that are of interest to Israel…
“The window is closing,” he declared, and it’s time for Netanyahu to “seize the moment” with regard to Kerry’s framework agreement.
“When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation,” Obama told Goldberg, “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?”
As Middle East analyst Arlene Kushner remarks:
The unmitigated gall of the man, twice over. It is, first, outrage that he should borrow from the words of our sage, Hillel, as he attempts to pressure the prime minister of Israel. And then, that he should put the onus on Israel, as if it is in our hands, alone, to bring “peace.”
David Horovitz in the Times of Israel called Obama’s interview “a bombshell battering”:
“Until he read the breaking news of President Obama’s earth-shattering interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have anticipated that Monday’s meeting was going to be one of his less confrontational and unpleasant sessions of frank, allied diplomacy with his good friend Barack.
“Sure, the stakes were always going to be high: The president was going to be urging Netanyahu to assent to Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework proposal for continued peace talks. And the prime minister was going to be urging Obama to toughen his demands on Iran, to ensure that the ayatollahs are deprived of the wherewithal to build the nuclear weapons they swear they don’t want to build, just on the off chance that they might be lying.
“But Netanyahu, his aides had long been indicating, was ready to accept the framework proposals — as a non-binding basis for further negotiations. So no need for confrontation there. And he must have had little hope that he was going to shift Obama’s stance on Iran, however powerful he believes his arguments to be. So not much point in confrontation there, either.
“But then came that bombshell Bloomberg battering.
“The timing could not have been any more deliberate — an assault on the prime minister’s policies delivered precisely as Netanyahu was flying in to meet with him, and on the first day, too, of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC’s annual tour de force conference across town.
“At the very least, that might be considered bad manners, poor diplomatic protocol, a resounding preemptive slap in the face: I’ve just told the world you’re leading your country to wrack and ruin, Mr. Prime Minister. Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?
“More substantively, the president’s comments reinforce years of grievance that have accumulated in Netanyahu’s circles and some distance beyond, to the effect that the president ignores the inconsistencies, duplicities and worse of the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, while placing exaggerated blame for the failure of peace efforts at the door of the Israeli government.
“As they read through the transcript of the interview, Netanyahu and his aides were doubtless bemoaning what they see as Obama’s obsession with settlements, to the exclusion of almost any other issue on which the Israelis and the Palestinians are deadlocked. They would certainly have been lamenting that the president’s public display of disaffection will hardly encourage the Palestinians to adopt more flexible positions on such other core issues as their demand for a ‘right of return’ for millions of Palestinians to Israel. And they might have been wondering if some of the Obama ammunition had been fired precisely now as a mark of his displeasure with AIPAC, the irritating lobby that just won’t keep quiet on pressuring Iran.
“For one thing is certain, the president’s resort to a newspaper interview on the eve of their talks to issue near-apocalyptic warnings about the disaster Netanyahu risks bringing upon Israel is just about the last thing likely to bolster the prime minister’s confidence in their alliance, and just about the last thing likely to encourage Netanyahu to further alienate his hawkish home base by taking steps such as halting building outside the settlement blocs.”
However, true to the spirit of the month of Adar and the upcoming Purim holiday, where everything gets turned upside down, unlike the last time that Obama treated Netanyahu so disgracefully, when he abandoned him to his own devices while he went to eat dinner with his family, this time Netanyahu gave him a little lesson in Middle East politics. This lesson too was a more polite, though no less pointed, than the last time Bibi had to teach Obama a lesson.
In Netanyahu’s lecture to Obama he pointed out several important, if inconvenient facts to the President:
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Monday, pushing back against pressure from the White House to swiftly cut a deal with the Palestinians as the president warned time was running out for peace.
“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t,” Netanyahu said to Obama, in front of the press. “The people of Israel know that it’s the case.”
“What we want is peace – not a piece of paper,” he said.
Netanyahu called for a “real peace… based on mutual recognition,” and chided his Palestinian counterparts for promoting “incessant violence” against the Jewish state.
“Israel, the Jewish state, is the realization of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination,” Netanyahu said. “I think it’s about time they recognized a nation state for the Jewish people.
We’ve only been here for about 4,000 years.”
Netanyahu is the first Israeli prime minister to formally call on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland – what he has called the “minimal requirement” for peace.
“The only peace that will endure is a peace that we can defend,” he added.
Quite surprisingly, Obama seemed to agree!
“Obama praised Netanyahu for participating in “very lengthy, painstaking negotiations” over the course of eight months, and recognized that Israel would not accept a peace accord that failed to recognize its strategic security needs.
What was the reason for this astonishing about-turn by Obama (besides Purim)? Raphael Ahren in the Times of Israel reckons it has a lot to do with the crisis brewing between Russia and Ukraine in Crimea:
The Ukraine crisis changed everything. After the unusually harsh comments US President Barack Obama made in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg last week – it was published on Sunday — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to receive another verbal lashing Monday in the Oval Office. But Obama’s tone was surprisingly gentle.
Obama did not radically change his position from one day to the next, neither on Iran nor on the peace process. Some “tough decisions are going to have to be made,” he told Netanyahu Monday in the White House, and difficult compromises will have to be made to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.While his views have stayed the same, the difference in tone was drastic. And this despite the Israeli government’s announcement that settlement construction increased by 123% in 2013 compared to the previous year, which could have potentially given the president even more ammunition to attack the prime minister.
By Monday, Obama understood that Russian President Vladimir Putin was serious about his ambitions regarding Crimea, and that a possible military showdown near the Black Sea could become the defining moment of his presidency.
The US public isn’t really that worried about Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state, and the fact that Bashar Assad is still killing in Syria doesn’t keep many Americans awake at night. While in the eyes of Israelis, and the Sunni Arab states in the region, Obama is a weak leader who cannot be trusted to enforce the red lines he occasionally draws, when he has no other choice, the average Joe in the US has other worries.
But the Crimea crisis, a throwback to the Cold War, is a different ballgame. Putin’s challenge to the West, and particularly the US — which has vowed that “there is a huge price to pay” for violating Ukrainian sovereignty – is a bigger headache for Obama than the entire Middle East. And the last thing the president needs right now is a public spat with Netanyahu, who enjoys near-universal admiration in Congress. And Obama might need Congress if he is to act decisively against Moscow’s territorial appetite in Eastern Europe.
Obama is not the only one who needs to draw the right conclusions from the Ukraine crisis. Netanyahu himself can learn some useful lessons – mainly, that US and European security guarantees are worthless (h/t Israel Matzav):
The lesson for Israel from Ukraine’s current plight, according to ex-MK Aryeh Eldad, is that Western guarantees of Israel’s security must never be trusted.
“The Russian parliament has given Putin approval to use the military in the Ukraine,” wrote Eldad on Facebook Sunday.
[…]After the Soviet Union broke up, the world suddenly realized that the Ukraine had become a nuclear power, he explained. “Hundreds of nuclear warheads were stored on its territory, ready for use.”
“In a quick diplomatic move, the US and Britain signed an agreement with Ukraine for the disarming of all its nuclear weapons, in exchange for a signed contract that said that the two powers would guarantee Ukraine’s intactness and and security, and are committed to intervening if and when its intactness is threatened.
“Today, Russia is threatening. It would seem that the US and Britain should send armies to the Ukraine, to prevent a Russian invasion or repulse it. It is clear that Britain and the US have no intention of doing so. Russia knows this well, and that is why it is clear that the western powers will ignore the security guarantees it gave Ukraine, and allow Russia to run the crumbling Ukrainian state from outside or from within.
“What do we care? You remember that ‘security guarantees’ will, of course, be an inseparable part of any ‘peace agreement’ that the US intends to force upon us and the Palestinians. These guarantees are not worth a cent, of course,” Eldad added.
“This is just meant to refresh the memory of all those who support the establishment of ‘a demilitarized Palestinian state with US guarantees’ or a retreat from the Jordan Valley, from the mountains of Judea and Samaria, from half of Jerusalem. This is the true worth of international guarantees,” he concluded.
After his re-education session of Barack Obama, Binyamin Netanyahu took to the podium to address AIPAC’s policy conference, where he hit back once again at Obama, but without getting personal:
Publicly savaged by President Barack Obama for his settlement policies on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday opted for a firmly non-personal response in a warmly received address to the AIPAC conference here. He argued extensively for several positions directly at odds with those held by the president, but did so without the direct targeting that Obama had employed in his incendiary Bloomberg conversation published two days earlier.
Netanyahu, having since joined the president in their latest public dialogue of the deaf at the White House on Monday, opted to tell AIPAC Tuesday morning that he had held “very good meetings” with Obama and other senior American leaders (the only time he named Obama in the speech), insisted that he was ready to conclude “a historic peace” with the Palestinians, and hailed the uniquely “precious alliance” between the United States and Israel.
He also chose to heap praise on Secretary of State John Kerry, who must have been deeply dismayed by the president’s decision to so openly question the policies of a prime minister he has spent months gradually trying to win over, cosset and reassure.
Kerry, who delivered a very long and passionately friendly address to the AIPAC conference on Monday evening, was hailed appreciatively by Netanyahu as “the secretary of state who never sleeps” and with whom he has been working “literally day and night” to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.
Strikingly, the issue of settlement building — raised repeatedly by the president in his Sunday interview as the apparent key obstacle to real progress and the key threat to Israel’s future — received not a single mention in either Kerry’s address or Netanyahu’s.
Although Netanyahu eschewed direct confrontation with Obama, he argued emphatically against the president’s stances on both Iran and the Palestinians.
He stressed that Israel backs a diplomatic deal, provided it truly dismantles Iran’s military nuclear capabilities. But he warned, as he has from the same podium in past years, that the Jewish nation “will never be brought to the brink of extinction again” and that he would do “whatever I must do to defend the Jewish state of Israel.”
Turning to the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu set out an optimistic vision of thriving relations between Israel and parts of the Arab world — citing the potential of a combination “of Israeli innovation and Gulf entrepreneurship,” and declaring that Israel’s water expertise could better the lives of hundreds of millions — if only a deal could be done.
But whereas Obama had touted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a leader demonstrably “committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve” the conflict, Netanyahu was far more skeptical. He received a standing ovation when he called on the Palestinians to “stop denying history” and urged Abbas to “recognize the Jewish state.” If Abbas would only tell his people of the Jewish nation’s sovereign rights, he could “finally make clear that you are truly prepared to end the conflict. No excuses. No delays. It’s time.”
And while Obama had openly wondered whether Israel wanted to “resign” itself “to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank,” and asserted that the US had developed a security plan to “deal with potential threats to Israel,” Netanyahu highlighted Israel’s ongoing security concerns in an “unraveling” Middle East. Israel simply could not afford to bet its security “on our fondest hopes.” It was, rather, Israel’s bitterly learned obligation to prepare for the worst. If a peace deal could be signed, it would certainly come under attack from extremists, and international forces could not be trusted to secure Israel because they “go home” when under repeated attack. Only “the brave soldiers” of the IDF could truly defend Israel, he said.
Netanyahu also used his speech as an opportunity to highlight Israel’s humanitarianism as he told of the IDF’s special field hospitals for Syrian war wounded:
Netanyahu said when he met injured refugees at the facility he was surprised that “all tell the same story.”
“‘All these years, Assad lied to us,’” the injured Syrians told him, he said. Syrian President Bashar al Assad “told us Iran was our friend and Israel is our enemy. But Iran is killing us and Israel is saving us!’”
Netanyahu said, “Israel is humane, Israel is compassionate, Israel is a force for good.”
He then described the “dividing line” in today’s Middle East.
Netanyahu quoted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as saying, “Iran and Hezbollah love death, and Israel loves life. And that’s why Iran and Hezbollah will win and Israel will lose.”
Netanyahu said Nasrallah was “right about the first point… but dead wrong on the second point.”
It is “precisely because we love life that Israel shall win,” Netanyahu said.
You can read the full text and watch Netanyahu’s speech in full in the video below (via Elder of Ziyon):