The Obama administration has been describing a weaker and colder relationship between the United States and the Jewish state in light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel’s March 17 elections, with some saying the US could support a United Nations resolution setting down principles for Palestinian statehood.
Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric — his statements in the days leading up to the election against a two-state solution and his election day comments on Arab voters — particularly angered the administration, prompting officials to say they would examine its future steps.
On Netanyahu’s personal Facebook account on Tuesday, the prime minister warned Jewish citizens in a video, “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”
Those election day comments drew ire at home and abroad, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the statements “deeply concerning” on Wednesday.
“It is divisive and I can tell you that these are views the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.” Earnest said. “It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.”
But more troubling to the White House were Netanyahu’s statements on a two-state solution, which the United States has been pursuing for decades in its effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an interview with the NRG news website on March 16, when asked, “If you are prime minister there will be no Palestinian state?” Netanyahu replied, “Indeed.”
“I think anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state and to evacuate territory is giving radical Islam a staging ground against the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
“We are signaling that if the Israeli government’s position is no longer to pursue a Palestinian state, we’re going to have to broaden the spectrum of options we pursue going forward,” a senior administration official told Politico magazine.
“The positions taken by the prime minister in the last days of the campaign have raised very significant substantive questions that go far beyond just optics,” the official said.
But the administration made clear that its reconsideration of Israel-US ties was not only due to Netanyahu’s recent comments, which many have claimed were made for the purpose of garnering support from the far right, but rather for his actions throughout the years, which officials say prove the prime minister’s opposition to a Palestinian state.
For example, the official referenced Netanyahu’s approval of construction in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa to block contiguity between Palestinian-majority areas during his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s as proof that Netanyahu truly meant what he said.
“It was a way of stopping Bethlehem from moving toward Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said at the time.
“To actually come out and say that this construction is actually driven by efforts to undermine a future Palestinian state is fairly dramatic,” said the official.
“He’s shown his true colors,” a former senior Obama administration official was quoted as saying.
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.
One official told the Los Angeles Times that even if Netanyahu didn’t mean to repudiate the two-state solution in earnest, “Bibi needs to understand that there are policy ramifications for the way he did this. You can’t say all this” about rejecting a two-state solution “and then just say, ‘I was just kidding.’”
A senior administration official who spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity said that one outcome could be a change in how the relationship between Israel and America is managed. Discourse between the two countries, for instance, would no longer be held between the heads of state directly. Instead, Secretary of State John Kerry and defense officials would act as go-betweens for President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.
“The president is a pretty pragmatic person and if he felt it would be useful, he will certainly engage,” said the official. “But he’s not going to waste his time.”
Meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki implied that although the US still prefers direct negotiations toward an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, she could not promise that the US would continue to defend Israel against unilateral actions in support of Palestinian statehood in either the International Criminal Court or the United Nations.
“We are not going to get ahead of any decisions with regard to what the US would do during any vote at the United Nations Security Council,” Psaki said in a press briefing, leaving open the possibility that the US could amend its long-held policy of using its Security Council veto power to block anti-Israel resolutions.
With chief PA negotiator with Israel, Saeb Erakat, telling AFP that the Palestinians would “accelerate, continue and intensify” their diplomatic efforts to increase pressure on Israel, such a move by the US could have serious ramifications.
Currently, under United States law, any Palestinian bid to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court will automatically end the $400 million in annual aid America gives to the Palestinian Authority.
But that stance could soften or change completely when the Palestinians formally enter the ICC in April.
One former official said the change could be less one of policy and more a shift in culture. Israel has always maintained a special relationship with Washington, meeting informally with members of Congress and other playmakers to discuss policy decisions. But that access could be lost if the two governments continue to antagonize one another.
Informal contacts have “been one of the most effective ways Israel has gotten what it wants,” another former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It won’t be the same.”
Animosity between Netanyahu and Obama has been growing for years.
Last year The Atlantic quoted an anonymous US official referring to Netanyahu as “chickenshit” in an article describing the “full-blown crisis” in the US-Israel relationship.
That crisis only worsened when Netanyahu agreed to speak in a special joint session of Congress on March 3. A senior official told Haaretz then that the “chickenshit” epithet was mild compared to the language used in the White House when news of Netanyahu’s planned speech came in.
““There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.