US President Barack Obama pointedly delayed the routine diplomatic gesture of congratulating Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on his election win Tuesday March 17 – as a sign of cold displeasure.
Even Secretary of State John Kerry, who claims to be an old and good friend of Netanyahu, withheld his greeting until Wednesday night.
When by Thursday, there was still no word from the White House, the breach between the two men had begun to look like a boycott.
Throughout the campaign, the US president made no secret of his wish to see Netanyahu’s rivals, the Zionist Union’s Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni, replace him in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. The pair were also darlings of the opinion pollsters who, after the vote, admitted red-faced that they had got their sums wrong.
A prominent item on the Herzog-Livni platform was a pledge to repair the damage Netanyahu had wrought to Israel’s relations with the Obama administration. Bucked by the polls, Herzog had evidently started packing his bags for his first trip as prime minister to Washington, for talks with the president on a new leaf in the relationship, cemented by common understandings on the Iranian nuclear deal underway and the future of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu retracts two-state pledge
The Likud leader was, in contrast, outspokenly critical of the “bad deal” in negotiation between the US and Iran for a nuclear accord. He also informed the electorate that he would oppose the creation of a Palestinian state so long as he was in office – in view of the rising Islamist peril closing in on Israel.
This was a retraction of the two-state pledge he made in his Bar-Ilan University address of June 15, 2009. That speech was delivered just two weeks after Barack Obama had offered US outreach to the Muslim world in an epic speech from Cairo.
At the time, Netanyahu was more open to the Obama orientation and amenable to US-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians, which were then thought to be in prospect.
In the intervening six years, the basic premises underlying the two speeches have changed beyond recognition and the rift between Obama and Netanyahu has progressively widened.
Two days before this week’s Israeli election, a bipartisan Senate probe was reported into alleged American nonprofit’s funding of “efforts to oust Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu,” to which the State Department was said to have advanced nonprofit taxpayer-funded grants.
Endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, this initiative was seen as a rebuke to the president.
Israeli hopefuls never before attacked a US president
Wednesday, March 18, a number of prominent Republican figures congratulated Netanyahu on his election victory. Among them were former governor John Jeb Bush and Senators Ted Cruz, Mark Kirk, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham.
Democrats were conspicuously absent from the list of well-wishers.
A few hours later, the White House announced that the president would call the prime minister to congratulate him on his Likud party’s election “in the coming days.” But first, the administration would “evaluate its approach” on the Middle East peace process “following Netanyahu's recent statement that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch.”
The spokesman added that the Obama administration “does not believe that the Netanyahu victory would have a substantial impact on the nuclear talks with Iran.”
The Likud leader’s re-election for his fourth term was evidently a red flag in the face of the president. It was complicated by the sense that the falling-out wasn’t just personal, but ran deeper.
Until now, it has always been tacitly agreed between Washington and Jerusalem that Israeli leaders running for election would abstain from public debate with the US President, because questioning the strategic ties with America would make any candidate unpopular with the voter and incur retribution at the polling booth.
This convention was never put to the test by former Israeli leaders when they found themselves at loggerheads with US presidents.
Washington’s battery of penalties for a non-compliant Israel
Three examples of this rule stand out. Yitzhak Rabin in the 70s, Menahem Begin (over the sale of US AWACs to Saudi Arabia and Israel’s 1981 bombardment of the Iraqi nuclear reactor) and Yitzhak Shamir, who in 1992 initially refused to attend the Madrid regional peace conference.
None of these prime ministers paraded Israel’s differences with the US president of the day – almost all on matters of Israel’s national security. But this did not mean that they did not act in defiance of US wishes, drawing from Washington a battery of penalties. These ranged from a freeze on financial aid and delaying military supplies – to putting the relationship on ice for what came to be known as “a reassessment” of the administration’s Israel policy.
Obama has never resorted to any of these punitive measures. His tactic has been to progressively unravel his personal ties with Netanyahu, while holding the Israeli leader responsible for the deterioration at each stage.
What happened this week was that roughly half of Israel’s eligible voters were not put off by their prime minister standing up to America when national security was at stake. They rejected the hackneyed opposition argument that America was Israel’s strongest and only friend in the world and the country was too isolated to be able to afford antagonizing Obama.
A large segment of the electorate made its views known by strengthening Netanyahu’s mandate.
This is a new factor in the strategic ties between the two countries. It is worth watching to see if has more ramifications and is a symptom of the average Israeli’s changing self-perception in relation to the world.
Netanyahu in sync with Cairo, Riyadh and the Gulf
Netanyahu would be the last to agree that Israel is isolated. He is encouraged by standing on the same side as prominent Middle East leaders, who share his reservations and concerns about the path chosen by Obama in the region.
One is Saudi King Salman, in the footsteps of his predecessor King Abdullah, whose relations with Obama were extremely tense. Another is Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi. They are joined in their mistrust of Obama by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and some of the Gulf rulers, who prefer not to make show of their views.
In the case of the US and Israel, the quarrel has so far been confined to personal antipathy between two leaders, while full strategic, military and intelligence cooperation carry on as usual without pause.
At the same time, DEBKA Weekly’s Washington and Israel suggest that the clash has begun to heat up and may spill over into other domains.
A sign of the stormy weather ahead may be seen in Obama’s decision to submit the nuclear deal he expects to sign with Iran to the UN Security Council for its endorsement, a stratagem that bypasses the US Congress as well as its support for Israel.
Obama may withhold the veto against anti-Israel UN steps
The US president could if he wanted whip out more direct penalties, such as a directive to Washington’s UN ambassador Samantha Power to withhold the US veto which is traditionally applied in the Security Council against anti-Israeli motions.
US delegates may also be told to refuse Israel’s requests to use their influence in world capitals and international bodies to defeat hostile steps. And finally, Obama may opt to freeze economic and military assistance to Israel pending a policy reassessment, which could drag on for the duration of his term until Jan. 2016.
On the Palestinian issue, heated rhetoric makes the resumption of peace diplomacy sound a lot more realistic than it is. It has in fact been dormant for more than a year, because Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, like most of his Sunni Arab champions, has stopped listening to Washington. He has given up on administration support and is totally committed to pursuing an anti-Israeli course in concert with likeminded Arab associates and international organizations.
The Israeli prime minister has adjusted to Abbas’ decision to run as far as he can from US-brokered diplomacy, and the Obama administration’s refusal to accept this, preferring to add it to the president’s bones of contention with Netanyahu.
To relieve the pressure, Netanyahu has openly sought the sympathy of the US Congress and quietly built up understandings with the Egyptian president and the Saudi royal court and its clandestine agencies.
Abbas plays his own game, no longer heeds Washington
He is acting on the assumption that, as matters stand today, Abbas is more likely to obey President El-Sisi or King Salman than President Obama.
As for Israel’s foreign relations, the Israeli prime minister will quickly embark on a major effort to further develop his ties with Riyadh, Cairo and parts of the Gulf, to ward off the dangerous volatility they all agree is in store for the region, in the wake of a nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran, the US administration’s recognition of Syrian President Bashar Assad as a peace partner, and Jordan’s cautious and gradual rapprochement with Iran following Washington’s blessing.
He will also invest work in building up the friendly ties he has begun to establish in the East with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who signed his note of congratulation as Netanyahu’s friend, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who honored him with a state visit to Israel before the election.