A former US ambassador to Israel on Monday confirmed reports that US President Barack Obama is deeply dismayed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinians, and that there is “bad chemistry” between the two leaders.
Martin Indyk, vice president at Washington DC’s Brookings Institution think tank and president Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel from 1995-97 and 2000-01, urged Netanyahu to “reach out” to the president “and try and turn a new page.” He said he was sure that Obama would be “receptive” to such an effort.
Indyk, interviewed on Army Radio, said the source of what he called the president’s “frustration” with Netanyahu and what he acknowledged was the “bad chemistry” was the prime minister’s approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians.
“It’s not [merely the issue of] settlements,” Indyk said, but rather the Netanyahu approach to the Palestinians in general and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in particular. Netanyahu, in Obama’s assessment, is plain “wrong” to argue that Abbas is not partner, Indyk said. Abbas is a partner, who opposes and works to prevent violence and seeks peace. “He’s just up the road in Ramallah… He’s committed to the two-state solution.”
If the message of the recent Israeli elections was that Israelis seek a normal life, Indyk said, then it’s vital you “resolve the Palestinian question,” he said. Israel “holds all the cards… It’s not enough to put your head in the sand.”
Indyk said he thought Obama had made a mistake in not coming to Jerusalem on his first presidential trip to the region four years ago. “Of course it was a mistake,” Indyk said, and it was a mistake that he hadn’t come since.
While Obama is “deeply committed to Israel,” that was a missed opportunity and Israelis don’t feel the commitment. Indyk said he hoped Obama would visit in his second term. Overall, though, “President Obama is feeling quite frustrated because he rightly feels that he has done the right thing by Israel but that Israel is not responsive.”
Indyk was speaking amid reports that Obama is conditioning a presidential visit to Israel on significant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and ahead of a reported planned visit here shortly by his incoming secretary of state John Kerry
His comments came two weeks after Obama was quoted as castigating Netanyahu for ostensibly turning Israel into a pariah nation and threatening its long-term survival through his hard line on the Palestinians — remarks that were not denied by the White House and that prompted Netanyahu to hit back by declaring that if he were to capitulate to demands for a retreat to the pre-1967 lines, “we’d get Hamas 400 meters from my house.”
According to a mid-January report by Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama has begun repeating the mantra that Israel under Netanyahu “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,” Goldberg added. “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.”
Goldberg added that, as regards Netanyahu’s handling of 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.”
The president believes — and has believed since his time in the Senate — according to Goldberg, that if Israel “doesn’t disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state.”
Goldberg wrote that the president recognizes that “broad territorial compromise by Israel” in the current unstable Middle East 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.”
Netanyahu retorted in a Channel 2 interview that Israelis will decide for themselves who best represents their interests. Alluding to Obama’s calls for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps, and a halt to building over the pre-67 lines in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said, “It’s very easy to capitulate. I could go back to the impossible to defend ’67 lines, and divide Jerusalem, and we’d get Hamas 400 meters from my home.” That would not happen under his leadership, he said.