The Netanyahu government and the Obama administration have had no shortage of spats over the years, but this time around, neither Jerusalem nor Washington is reportedly doing much to fix the rifts that emerged surrounding the prime minister’s planned March 3 speech to the US Congress on Iran, a visit US officials said breached protocol as it was not coordinated with the White House.
According to a report in the New York Times on Saturday, the current row reflects “six years of suspicion and mistrust and grievance, wounds from past brawls easily reopened by what might otherwise be small irritations.”
“It reflects resentment on the part of Obama, who watched Netanyahu seemingly root for his Republican opponent in the 2012 election and now sees him circumventing the Oval Office to work with a Republican Congress instead. And it reflects a conviction on the part of Netanyahu that Obama may sell out Israel with a bad deal and may be trying to influence the coming Israeli elections,” set to take place March 17, two weeks after the PM’s expected speech.
Netanyahu is widely expected to urge US lawmakers to pass a new sanctions bill against Iran to force to it comply with international demands it curb its nuclear program — a bill Obama strongly opposes and has vowed to veto, urging that such a move would hinder the P5+1 negotiations under way to secure a deal with Tehran. Officials in Jerusalem said Friday, however, that Netanyahu would focus less on sanctions and more on the dangers of a bad deal with Iran.
The row over the planned Congress speech has set off an ugly, ongoing public spat between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration, with senior US officials charging that the Israeli leader had “spat” in Obama’s face and could not be trusted.
Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, on Friday insisted that Netanyahu’s decision to accept the invitation by Republican House speaker John Boehner was not meant to disrespect Obama.
Officials in the Netanyahu government told Israeli media Friday that the US has already agreed in principle to a deal that would leave Iran capable of enriching enough uranium for a nuclear bomb within “mere months. A Channel 10 report quoted unnamed Jerusalem sources saying the terms of the deal would leave Iran “closer than was thought” to nuclear weapons, “mere months from producing enough material for a bomb,” and that the US has agreed to 80% of Iran’s demands.
The fallout from the row may result in a “virtual freeze in the relationship at the very top until after the 2016 American presidential vote,” according to the New York Times.
“We don’t have a precedent for a two-year crisis in the relationship,” said Martin Indyk, the former special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, which collapsed last April after a nine-month, US-brokered effort. “So the question is, is there a way back from the brink? Because if Bibi [as Netanyahu is known] is re-elected, we have to find a way and he has to find a way.”
A former US ambassador to Israel told the paper that a major policy shift is not expected until after 2016. “There just seems to be too much baggage there,” said Edward Djerejian.
Richard Haass, a former US State Department official and president of the Council of Foreign Relations, told the paper that it seemed Netanyahu and his government has “written off” the Obama administration, placing all their bets on the Republicans. “They have made the calculation that to the extent possible, they will use Congress as the channel to conduct their relationship,” he said.
That move is a mistake, former Mossad head Efraim Halevy said in the report.
Netanyahu on Friday downplayed the diplomatic spat, terming it a “procedural issue” that can be resolved — unlike a “bad” deal with Tehran, which cannot be so easily mended. “We can resolve procedural issues with regard to my appearance in the US, but if Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons, it will be a lot harder to fix,” Netanyahu said.
Those remarks came shortly after The New York Times reported that Netanyahu had reached out by phone to leading Democrats in an effort to quell the tensions around his scheduled address on Iran.
“We can resolve procedural issues with regard to my appearance in the US, but if Iran arms itself with nuclear weapons, it will be a lot harder to fix,” Netanyahu said.
He warned that Iran was being indulged by world negotiators who, he said, are intending to “leave it with the capabilities to build nuclear weapons.”
Last week, a senior Obama administration official charged that Dermer has been working to advance the political fortunes of Netanyahu at the expense of the US-Israel relationship, according to The New York Times. The accusation marked a striking escalation in the rhetorical spat between the White House and the Netanyahu government over the Congress speech.
The “unusually sharp criticism” by the senior official, who was not named in the report, reflected “the outrage the episode has incited within President Obama’s inner circle,” the Times suggested. “Such officially authorized criticisms of diplomats from major allies are unusual.”