After Netanyahu win, Obama takes off the gloves

All aspects of relationship up for reevaluation; coming weeks critical as US waits to hear if PM will dial down anti-two-state, anti-Arab rhetoric

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

President Barack Obama (photo credit: AFP/Mandel Ngan)
President Barack Obama (photo credit: AFP/Mandel Ngan)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration woke up Wednesday morning to a sobering new reality on the ground in Jerusalem – instead of a weakened or rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Washington will now face the return of “King Bibi.” The White House has to come to terms with a Netanyahu who, defying the predictions, has been shored up by a strong mandate for his rightward-turning campaign.

In the final days before the election, the Obama administration was on good behavior – both the State Department and the White House barely responded to campaign statements by Netanyahu that walked back his previous comments in support of a two-state agreement. They also abided not-very-veiled accusations of US meddling in an effort to undermine Netanyahu’s candidacy. But on Wednesday, the gloves came off.

In a set of coordinated messages, the White House and State Department launched their first barrage, mostly focusing on Netanyahu’s comments apparently repudiating his 2009 statements in support of a two-state solution.

The coming weeks will be critical for the short-term future of the relationship, at least until 2017. It seems that the Obama administration is waiting to see if Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric will be backed up by a rightist coalition – but in the meantime has few reservations about giving an already teetering relationship a rope with which to hang itself.

The morning after the elections found US-Israel relations more shaky than ever before. The State Department made a few things clear. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s call to congratulate Netanyahu was perfunctory and chilly. The two did not talk policy at all, said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

In fact, the message that Washington is conveying is that everything other than the most routine cooperation – security, intelligence, and military – is open to question.

The administration broadcast loud and clear that it views a departure from two-state solution orthodoxy as a breach of a longstanding international consensus about the ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If post-elections Netanyahu puts his policy where his mouth is and continues to deny a path toward Palestinian statehood, Washington is signaling that things will get ugly. Uglier, that is.

Administration officials have already emphasized that the US will be reevaluating its approach based on Netanyahu’s comments; they have laid down a definitive framework going forward, instead alluding to two likely scenarios.

Carefully planted rumors have been circulating around Washington for weeks that the White House and Foggy Bottom are considering presenting a new peace plan, one that bypasses direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and attempts to impose a reality on the ground. The US – if it wants to play rough – certainly has the leverage to try and strong-arm Israel into an agreement, using critical defense allocations as carrot or stick.

During last summer’s war in Gaza and immediately afterward, Israel got a taste of what it would feel like if military equipment transfers were slowed – not even halted – and the threat of a slackening of military aid is a palpable one.

The pre-elections appointment of Robert Malley as the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region puts the right person in the right position to play bad cop. Malley has been the focus of criticism in the past, removed from Obama’s 2008 campaign team because of contacts with Hamas and seen as a Washington insider who is comfortable taking a critical approach to Israel’s policies.

The second option – this is the one the administration has been publicly hinting at in the aftermath of the elections – is a reduction of US support for Israel in the United Nations and its affiliated institutions.

Psaki said that the US was still “not going to get ahead of any decisions about what the United States would do with regard to potential action at the UN Security Council,” a marked departure from earlier American commitments to veto any attempt at a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence.

Asked repeatedly about whether the US would maintain its veto policy, Psaki said simply that “the prime minister’s recent statements call into question his commitment to a two-state solution…but that doesn’t mean that we’ve made a decision about changing our position with respect to the UN.” The statement in itself – a refusal to commit to a veto – is itself a changed position.

Later Wednesday, The New York Times quoted several administration officials as saying that the US could endorse a United Nations Security Council resolution setting down terms for the formation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps.

Netanyahu’s comments were enough in Washington to strengthen the voices of critics who suggest that he has been negotiating in bad faith the whole time. Rather than simply writing off Netanyahu’s opposition to a two-state solution as campaign rhetoric, the State Department says that “obviously the prime minister’s position has changed.” At the same time, the administration is still in warning phase – waiting to see what comes next.

The administration says that it has not yet discussed the implications of the Israeli election with the Palestinian Authority, meaning that there are still options open and that the US has not yet committed to support Palestinian initiatives in the international community.

Any action by Netanyahu that is seen to further the ideological turn conveyed in his campaign rhetoric will likely trigger the onset of steps by the US that go beyond the warning. What is not yet clear is if Netanyahu simply does nothing – does not, say, initiate a building project in East Jerusalem but also doesn’t express any real interest in returning to talks with the Palestinians – how long the administration will continue to wait.

The ball is in Netanyahu’s court. After years of diplomatic frostiness and walking on the edge of open hostility with Obama, crunch time is now. But with coalition talks underway and a deal with Iran on the horizon, it remains to be seen whether the prime minister has the space, capacity or desire to step back from the edge.

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