Is Obama getting tougher on Israeli prime minister?



Hassan Barari

Published — Friday 18 January 2013

Last update 18 January 2013 4:32 am

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In closed-door briefings, President Barack Obama leveled tough criticisms at the Israeli leadership. “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are,” he told his associates. President Obama warned that the policies adopted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had only complicated Israel’s status within the international community. He expected that these policies would only take Israel to a near-total international isolation.
Benjamin Netanyahu — who is poised to win the upcoming elections and will most likely form a new right-wing government — is aware of the president’s disdain and he seems unmoved by that. He dismissed the American president’s anger at Israel’s hard-line policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. “Only the Israeli people will determine who best represents the State of Israel’s vital interests,” said Netanyahu.
Not surprisingly, the relationship between the two leaders has not been a pleasant one. In his first term, Obama humiliated Netanyahu on more than one occasion. Time and again, Obama voiced his dissatisfaction over Israeli policies. According to many accounts, President Obama was hardly popular among the Israeli public. This begs the following question that since Obama is not worried about his re-election, will he now put serious pressure on Netanyahu? Perhaps! Sources close to the president indicated that to avert a clash between the American administration and Netanyahu, the latter should change course.
Interestingly, the timing of President Obama’s reported comments cannot be more indicative. Israelis are casting their votes for the general elections in a week. His comments may sway some Israelis who value the relationship with the United States a lot. We remember when President George Bush Sr. withheld the loan guarantees on the eve of the Israeli elections in 1992, an increasing number of Israeli voters turned against the incumbent Yitzhak Shamir thus helping Yitzhak Rabin win the general elections. Again President Clinton interfered in Israeli elections in 1999 helping Ehud Barak win elections against Netanyahu.
Now the Israeli press is full of news of the reported Obama’s disdain of Netanyahu. The language used by Obama reflects the depth of anger at Netanyahu. Obama said that Netanyahu was a political coward with no courage to take a risk and concede to Palestinians. In Obama’s first term, Netanyahu demonstrated inflexibility thus making the American president look ineffective and with no influence on Israelis. Netanyahu’s policy on settlement enraged the White House and it was obvious to all observers that Obama was in no position to influence the Israeli government. Apparently, Obama will be thrilled in case Netanyahu does not win next elections. That said, it remains to be seen, however, whether the Israeli press coverage of this episode will sway the results of the upcoming elections.
It looks as if Obama seeks revenge. During the American presidential elections, Netanyahu tried to interfere in American elections to get Mitt Romney elected. He even hosted him! Therefore, there is no love lost between Obama and Netanyahu. Having said that however it is rather simplistic just to assume that Obama’s comments were meant to take revenge.
In fact, the European Union is working to put forward a plan for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A possible right-wing government headed by Netanyahu will have hard time agreeing to the European plan that calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders.
President Obama may help the European present their plan. Additionally, he may present his key ideas about a two-state solution that entails the division of Jerusalem between the two sides. The idea of partitioning of Jerusalem is an anathema to Netanyahu and his right-wing cronies. Seen in this way and the changes in the posts of secretaries of defense and secretary of state suggest that Obama may play a hardball with Netanyahu.
From the get-go, Netanyahu and Obama have a prickly relation. According to Aaron David miller from Woodrow Wilson Center, “It’s troubled. It’s the greatest dysfunction between leaders that I’ve seen in my 40 years in watching and participating… I don’t think we are headed for a showdown, but the relationship will continue to be dysfunctional.” In short, Obama is expected to exert pressure on the next Israeli government. Nonetheless, Obama may well find himself consumed by battling the Congress over domestic issues. Therefore, we should not overlook the possibility that Obama may have little time to pressure Israel.

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