The White House was directly involved in an attempt to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in last week’s general election, during a nadir in ties between the Israeli leader and US President Barack Obama, a senior Jerusalem official said Tuesday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Times of Israel that “it’s no secret” that the Obama administration had attempted to influence the outcome of the election, having been partially motivated by a desire for revenge over Netanyahu’s polarizing speech before Congress earlier this month, which sought to undermine the president’s key foreign policy initiative – a nuclear deal with Iran.
“The White House is driven by three main motives,” the senior official said. “The first is revenge [over the Congress speech]. The second is frustration: It’s no secret that they were involved in an attempt to bring down the Netanyahu government – something that we have clear knowledge of – and failed. The third [motive] is the administration’s attempt to divert attention from the negotiations with Iran to the Palestinian issue.”
Netanyahu’s latest term in office has seen an unprecedented, unmasked animus seep into the relationship between the administration and his government, much of it over the emerging deal with Iran. On Monday the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had spied on the talks, an accusation firmly denied by senior Israeli ministers and that Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman attributed to efforts to undermine ties between Jerusalem and Washington.
A series of tit-for-tat exchanges between the two allies in recent months culminated with Obama sternly rebuking Netanyahu last weekend over comments he had made in the lead-up to the vote. Netanyahu was widely panned for an Election Day rallying call in which he claimed that Israeli Arab voters were being bused to polling booths “in droves” by local political groups supported and funded by a “concerted” international campaign to dislodge him.
One of those groups was allegedly V15, whose sources of funding are unclear and whose reputed improprieties are the focus of a Republican-initiated US Senate probe.
Obama slammed Netanyahu’s comments as evidence of the “erosion” of Israeli democracy. The president also vowed to “reevaluate” bilateral ties between the two countries in the wake of the prime minister’s pre-vote rejection of Palestinian statehood — a stance he subsequently walked back.
Former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren called Obama’s response “damaging” to bilateral ties and to Israel’s image.
The White House will attempt to “punish” Israel at the UN or the Security Council, the senior Israeli official said Tuesday, alluding to intimations by US officials to the effect that Washington could change its policy of vetoing anti-Israel measures and even pursue a unilateral Palestinian statehood initiative.
“Congress is currently our only means of preventing a series of harmful initiatives, on both the Iranian and the Palestinian front,” the official said. “If the US government will permit the recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN, then Congress will brandish its knives and defund the UN.” On Sunday, Republic Senator John McCain threatened to do just that.
Criticism of Netanyahu in Washington has also focused on his short-lived repudiation of support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. In an evident effort to appeal to hard-line voters, the prime minister said on March 16 that there would be no Palestinian state during his next term in office; he subsequently attempted to walk back the comments. On Monday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told lobbying group J Street that Israel’s “50-year occupation must end,” doubling down on the Obama administration’s criticism of the prime minister.
The Jerusalem official actually took Netanyahu’s initial disavowal of Palestinian statehood further, claiming that a two state-solution would be out of reach “in our generation,” due to Palestinian rejection of Israeli proposals and US-led agreements.
“[Obama] continuously warns of a deteriorating state of chaos in the [Palestinian] territories, when he knows that the only place that truly manages to maintain stability in the Middle East right now is [Israel],” the official said.
“Netanyahu said there will no agreement [with the Palestinians] during his term in office.” A Palestinian state “won’t even happen in our generation,” the official added.” Everyone knows it.”
“They come and accuse us of torpedoing negotiations even though they know that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself said no [to a deal], twice — once to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2011, and once to Secretary of State John Kerry last year.”
The official went on to refer to two “framework documents, designed to jump-start the process” that were accepted by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians, and accused the administration of devoting too much energy to the Palestinian issue, to the detriment of other, more pertinent regional challenges.
“Look at what we did about settlement construction. We took upon ourselves all the restrictions laid forth during the Sharon-Bush era, which allowed for building to accommodate natural population growth, but not for building new settlements,” the official continued, referring to an arrangement in the last decade between then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and president George Bush. “But the [current] administration does not recognize the Sharon-Bush understandings. They’re working according to a ‘no-brick’ policy and it doesn’t make any sense.”
Avi Lewis contributed to this report.