Fed up, Obama says Israel ‘doesn’t know its own best interests’

US president, unhappy over settlement building, said to say he has come to expect such self-defeating behavior from Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listening as President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting in Washington in March 2012. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listening as President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting in Washington in March 2012. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

US President Barack Obama, frustrated with continued construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, has reportedly become “inured” to the issue and has begun telling colleagues that Israel is acting against its own best interests.

If accurately reported, such comments, expressed by the head of state of the country Israel considers its closest ally, may represent a new low in relations between this US administration and Jerusalem, which in recent years have suffered strains over the Palestinian and Iranian issues.

According to the report by Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg published Tuesday morning, Obama last month began repeating the mantra that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”

Israel recently ramped up settlement construction plans, approving thousands of homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in response to the Palestinian Authority’s successful gambit to gain nonmember observer state status from the UN in November.

Israel considers East Jerusalem part of its sovereign territory, but had imposed a de facto construction freeze in 2010 after the US balked at building plans there.

In December, the government said it would go ahead with the construction of some 3,000 homes in parts of the city lying over the Green Line, as well as pushing ahead with plans to build on a controversial strip of land east of the city known as E1.

The US joined much of the rest of the world in strongly condemning the move, which critics say will cut off Palestinian neighborhoods and make a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank nearly impossible.

According to Goldberg, though, the White House has stopped getting in a huff over the moves, wearily regarding the settlement building as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s harmful modus operandi.

“[Obama] told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart,” Goldberg wrote.

“With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation,” Goldberg added. “And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah — one that alienates even the affections of the U.S., its last steadfast friend — it won’t survive. Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.”

Goldberg added that as regards Netanyahu’s handling of the Palestinians, “the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.”

Goldberg said John Kerry, Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, wants to try to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but Obama “is thought to be considerably more wary. He views the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as weak, but he has become convinced that Netanyahu is so captive to the settler lobby, and so uninterested in making anything more than the slightest conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian moderates, that an investment of presidential interest in the peace process wouldn’t be a wise use of his time.”

Yet the president believes — and has believed since his time in the Senate — according to Goldberg, that if Israel “doesn’t disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state.”

In Goldberg’s assessment, “the short-term consequences of Obama’s frustration are limited. The US won’t cut off its aid to Israel, and Obama’s effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions will continue whether or not he’s fed up with Netanyahu. But it is in terms of American diplomatic protection — among the Europeans and especially at the UN — that Israel may one day soon notice a significant shift. During November’s vote on Palestine’s status, the U.S. supported Israel and asked its allies to do the same” — without much success. “When such an issue arises again, Israel may find itself even lonelier. It wouldn’t surprise me if the U.S. failed to whip votes the next time, or if the U.S. actually abstained. I wouldn’t be particularly surprised, either, if Obama eventually offered a public vision of what a state of Palestine should look like, and affirmed that it should have its capital in East Jerusalem.”

Goldberg wrote that the president recognizes that “broad territorial compromise by Israel” in the current unstable Middle East is unlikely. “But what Obama wants is recognition by Netanyahu that Israel’s settlement policies are foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution, and he wants Netanyahu to acknowledge that a two-state solution represents the best chance of preserving the country as a Jewish-majority democracy. Obama wants, in other words, for Netanyahu to act in Israel’s best interests. So far, though, there has been no sign that the Israeli government is gaining a better understanding of the world in which it lives.”

Israel considers the US its closest ally, relying on Washington for defense aid, help in thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and political shelter on the world stage.

The two countries briefly tussled during the summer over the timetable for using military action against Iran’s nuclear program. That public fight, coupled with differences over settlement building, exposed fraying ties between the two capitals, and especially between Netanyahu and Obama.

The two leaders will have to deal with each other for several more years, should Netanyahu cruise to an election victory on January 22 as expected.

“I don’t think we are headed for a showdown,” Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the Associated Press recently, “but the relationship will continue to be dysfunctional.”

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