‘Netanyahu-Obama relationship must be healed’

US Jewish leader: Obama’s reported statement about Israel’s ‘best interests’ was ‘payback’ for Netanyahu’s alleged support for Romney

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

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)

NEW YORK — The relationship between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government will need to be patched up in the expected new terms of both governments, a senior American Jewish leader said Monday, less than 24 hours before Israelis go to the polls in an election expected to return Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the well-known leader, who knows senior figures in both governments but is uninvolved in American party politics, said the relationship between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office has left him “scared about the nature of the relationship. They have to start pulling back.”

The relationship of the Obama White House and the Netanyahu PMO is widely believed to be a difficult one. After widely publicized disagreements on the peace process in recent years and Netanyahu’s public pressuring of Obama at the height of the US elections last year on Iran, Democrats have accused Netanyahu of campaigning against Obama in the 2012 elections.

A Bloomberg column by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg last week claimed Obama had told his senior staff that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” — a dig at Israel’s announcement late last year it would build in the E1 area in the West Bank that separates Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim. The Israeli move followed the successful Palestinian bid for upgraded status at the UN in November.

The leak of Obama’s criticism “wasn’t an accident,” the American Jewish leader said. “That was payback.”

But it also reflects the mutual ignorance that drives the sides apart, the leader suggested, since the move likely helped Netanyahu.

“It shows Americans don’t understand that when they do this, they help Bibi. Israelis react negatively to any kind of pressure like that.”

The Jewish leader believes the future will see more amity on both sides. “Once the elections are over, they’ll make an effort to get back on track. That’s what everybody wants. Certainly, Bibi will want it. The question is, how much damage was done and what will be the priorities of this new administration?”

Obama won’t invest political capital going head-to-head with the Israeli government, the leader predicted. “I don’t think you’re going to have Obama wanting to take on Congress on Israel. He’s got too many issues. In that regard, I think it’s less of a problem.”

But the new Obama cabinet, including nominees for secretaries of state and defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, may lead to increased pressure and tension between the sides.

“Kerry is a good friend of Bibi. But he has always played around in the Middle East, likes to visit and do things there, and that will likely be his area of focus,” the leader said, adding that Kerry may focus on a renewed American peace push between Israel and the Palestinians.

Further tension may arise on Iran. Neither Kerry nor Hagel “is interventionist on Iran,” suggesting Israel’s coming government and the second Obama administration may not see eye-to-eye on that issue going forward, the leader said.

“We’ll have to see,” he concluded.

One observer who was optimistic about the Netanyahu-Obama relationship is Matt Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“The two have had four years to work together,” Brooks said Monday. “Nothing is going to change dramatically, one way or another. I think they’re going to continue to have a working relationship. They’re never going to be best friends or best buddies. But they’ll continue to find ways to work together as they face challenges ahead.”

The Obama White House would remain focused on the Middle East, he predicted, even as it paid more attention to other regions. “Nobody has the luxury of ignoring Israel and the Middle East. It’s too much of a central focus of our foreign policy because it’s too vital to our national security.”

Brooks took issue with the Democratic Party’s “narrative that Bibi was actively campaigning for Obama.”

“I’ve been intimately involved in what was going on in the Jewish community,” he said. “I didn’t see any instance of Bibi actively or implicitly supporting [Republican candidate Mitt] Romney, other than meeting with him when Romney came to Israel.”

On the other side, however, “Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres and others have been much more effusive in their support and appreciation for President Obama than anyone was doing for Romney. The reality is the involvement of the Israeli political class, the leadership in the Israeli government, was much more actively supporting Obama than it was Mitt Romney. Yet somehow this narrative has taken hold that Bibi was going door-to-door in Florida campaigning for Romney.”

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