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Israeli officials say US anger aims to distract from Iran deal

Jerusalem downplays Obama’s dismay with the apparent Netanyahu rejection of 2-state solution, says Washington knows the Palestinians, not Israel, sank peace talks

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

US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2012 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2012 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)

The US administration’s comments calling into question Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution are intended to divert the public’s attention from the prospective nuclear deal with Iran, senior officials in Jerusalem said Sunday.

Ties between Jerusalem and Washington appeared to hit a new low over the last week, with US officials speaking of supporting Palestinian overtures at the UN after Netanyahu appealed for right-wing support ahead of election day by saying he would not allow a Palestinian state.

But sources in Jerusalem indicated that Sunday that they believed the US was using the issue to distract from a controversial deal being hammered out with Iran over its nuclear program, which Netanyahu has lobbied against.

“In my eyes, [the US administration’s comments on the two-state solution] are less related to the Palestinian issue but are much more connected to the Iranian issue,” Dore Gold, a former ambassador to the United Nations and close Netanyahu adviser, told Army Radio Sunday. “We’re having a substantial disagreement with Washington over the agreement they’re about to sign in the coming days and weeks.”

Over the weekend, US President Barack Obama issued thinly veiled threats of allowing the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the creation of a Palestinian side.

He said his government would have to “evaluate” again its stance on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in light of Netanyahu’s pre-election rejection of Palestinian statehood.

Although Netanyahu later backtracked in interviews with four American television networks, reiterating a commitment in principle to a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” Obama said in an interview published Saturday that his administration is now operating under the assumption that Netanyahu does not envision the creation of a Palestinian state.

In Jerusalem, the president’s comments were interpreted as an American ploy to place the Palestinian issue on the agenda to draw interest away from a prospective agreement between six world powers — led by the US — and Iran over the latter’s rogue nuclear program. Netanyahu is openly critical of the deal, arguing that it would pave the way toward a nuclear-armed Iran.

Dore Gold (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Dore Gold (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The Americans know that the Palestinian Authority was the key obstacle to a peace agreement during last year’s negotiations, Gold argued. Therefore, he suggested, Obama’s comments on the peace process and on Netanyahu’s ostensible repudiation of the two-state solution could be seen as motivated by a desire to distract from the Iran deal, he suggested.

The US is a serious country that doesn’t play political games, Gold said. “But we need to understand that there are tensions [with Israel] on these two issues. Regarding the Palestinian issue — the prime minister himself clarified his positions. But the tensions persist, in my view, in light of our disagreement about key aspects of the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Another senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel on Sunday that Netanyahu gave interviews to four American television station in order to clarify his position on the Palestinian statehood. “The prime minister reiterated that there’s no change to his commitment to the principle of two states for two peoples,” the senior official said. “We thought that would be enough to put that issue aside.”

The fact that Obama nevertheless opted to focus on the Palestinian issue indicates that he wants to deflect Israeli criticism on the prospective Iran deal, the senior official added.

He did not comment on whether or how the prime minister intends to satisfy the president’s demand for clarification on Jerusalem’s stance toward Palestinian statehood.

In his interview with The Huffington Post, Obama promised to maintain cooperation with the Israeli government on military and intelligence operations, but would not say whether the US would continue to block Palestinian efforts to secure statehood via the United Nations. He said he had told the Likud leader when they spoke on Thursday that it would be difficult to find a way to restart peace talks when people are seriously doubting that negotiations are possible.

“We take him at his word when he said that [the creation of a Palestinian state] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership,” Obama said, “and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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