Hello, Mr. Prime Minister. You’re attempting to maintain “a chronic situation” as regards the Palestinians. You’ve been pursuing “more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” There’ll come a point, you know, “where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices: Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank?… Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?” But other than that, Mr. Prime Minister, welcome to the White House.
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.
Since even before he became president, Obama has made plain his conviction that Israel’s settlement enterprise is profoundly counterproductive for the Jewish state. Many Israelis share this belief. That Obama chose to highlight his concern in such ominous and pointed terms, going so far as to warn that it would become harder in the future for the US to protect Israel from the consequences of its misguided West Bank building, would suggest that he has all but despaired of Netanyahu’s willingness to rein in construction. Otherwise, surely, he would have held his fire, and first consulted face-to-face with the prime minister.
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.
It will be particularly interesting now to see what platitudes the pair can manage when they invite in the press for the traditional, brief Q&A session at the White House on Monday. Doubtless they’ll come up with something. But the fact is that Obama chose to have his real say about Netanyahu before the prime minister had arrived, and it constituted a brutal political assault. Other than that, Mr. Prime Minister, how are you enjoying Washington, DC?