With Putin making trouble, Obama goes easy on Netanyahu

Despite the harshly worded interview he gave last week, the US president takes a softer tone in meeting with PM

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, March 3, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The Ukraine crisis changed everything. After the unusually harsh comments US President Barack Obama made in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg last week — it was published on Sunday — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to receive another verbal lashing Monday in the Oval Office. But Obama’s tone was surprisingly gentle.

The president’s statement made immediately prior to his meeting with Netanyahu sounded quite different from the interview, in which Obama chastised the prime minister for “continued aggressive settlement construction,” warned that the US might no longer be able to protect Israel in the international arena, and predicted that “the window is closing for a peace deal.”

Obama did not radically change his position from one day to the next, neither on Iran nor on the peace process. Some “tough decisions are going to have to be made,” he told Netanyahu Monday in the White House, and difficult compromises will have to be made to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

While his views have stayed the same, the difference in tone was drastic. And this despite the Israeli government’s announcement that settlement construction increased by 123% in 2013 compared to the previous year, which could have potentially given the president even more ammunition to attack the prime minister.

According to Goldberg, Obama was ready to tell Netanyahu that if he failed to endorse an American peace plan, Israel “could face a bleak future — one of international isolation and demographic disaster.”

And yet, at least in the public statements the two leaders made before their nearly three-hours-long meeting, it didn’t look like the president was about to berate Netanyahu with a lecture on settlements — or on anything else that could ostensibly indicate Israel’s intransigence, for that matter. Obama did not utter the word “settlements” a single time on Monday during his public remarks.

Obviously, the president knows not to offend his guests by attacking and accusing them in person. But there’s more to the sudden change of tone. Obama’s interview with Goldberg took place last Thursday, before the Russian-Ukrainian crisis escalated. By Monday, Obama understood that Russian President Vladimir Putin was serious about his ambitions regarding Crimea, and that a possible military showdown near the Black Sea could become the defining moment of his presidency.

The US public isn’t really that worried about Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state, and the fact that Bashar Assad is still killing in Syria doesn’t keep many Americans awake at night. While in the eyes of Israelis, and the Sunni Arab states in the region, Obama is a weak leader who cannot be trusted to enforce the red lines he occasionally draws, when he has no other choice, the average Joe in the US has other worries.

But the Crimea crisis, a throwback to the Cold War, is a different ballgame. Putin’s challenge to the West, and particularly the US — which has vowed that “there is a huge price to pay” for violating Ukrainian sovereignty – is a bigger headache for Obama than the entire Middle East. And the last thing the president needs right now is a public spat with Netanyahu, who enjoys near-universal admiration in Congress. And Obama might need Congress if he is to act decisively against Moscow’s territorial appetite in Eastern Europe.

Does that mean that the US administration is going to decrease pressure on Israel in the coming weeks and months? Certainly not. As Washington prepares to get Israelis and Palestinians to sign on to a framework agreement that would allow the sides to continue negotiations toward a final-status peace accord, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry will be relentless in trying to get Netanyahu to show flexibility and make concessions. But as long as the specter of war looms in Europe, and Ukrainians and Europeans look to the leader of the free world to counter Russian provocations, Obama will be careful not to open other unnecessary fronts.

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