Obama’s absent congratulations bad omen for bilateral ties

True, it often takes the president several days to call newly elected leaders, but this time, disdain for Netanyahu is in the air

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

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, looks toward US President Barack Obama as he speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, March 2013 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, looks toward US President Barack Obama as he speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, March 2013 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Let’s get the good news out of the way first: There is no set protocol as to when American presidents congratulate leaders of allied countries on their election victories. The number of days it takes Barack Obama to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thus is not necessarily a measure of how much the two men dislike each other.

After the 2013 election, it took the president six days to call Netanyahu. At time of writing, we’re only on day three.

Some world leaders with whom Obama has no public disputes have had to wait quite a while longer: It took the president almost two weeks to call Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven last year.On the other hand, sometimes he’s much quicker to deliver congratulations. Japan’s Shinzo Abe, for example, received them twice on the very day of his election wins (in 2012 and 2014).

Some reports have claimed that Obama called Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on the day he was elected two years ago, but this is misleading. The White House press secretary did, on June 15, 2013, release a statement saying the administration “respect[s] the vote of the Iranian people and congratulate[s] them for their participation in the political process.” Obama himself, however, only phoned Rouhani more than three months later, on September 27, to congratulate him on winning the election.

Sooner or later, Obama will congratulate Israel’s old-new prime minister, reiterating his commitment to Israel’s security and expressing hope for continued cooperation, and so on.

But here comes the bad news: The perceived delay in Obama’s phone call is indeed symptomatic of the dismal personal relations between the two leaders. Much more problematically, the president’s utter disdain for Netanyahu and his leadership, observers predict, will likely be substantiated in a further deterioration of bilateral ties and the erosion of America’s support for Israel in international forums.

“It’s unwritten protocol that good friends call immediately to congratulate each other on their victory,” said Yigal Palmor, a retired Israeli official intimately familiar with diplomatic etiquette. The fact that Obama didn’t rush to call Netanyahu speaks volumes, he added. “A resounding silence is a very clear statement.”

Itzhak Oren, a former ambassador who served as minister for congressional affairs in Israel’s Washington embassy, agreed that it’s customary among allies to call each other. “In the past, the Americans picked up the phone right after the election,” he said.

Some pundits argue that Obama is waiting until the final election results are announced or until the prime minister succeeds in forming a new coalition. But these are weak excuses. Had the elections ended in a draw or a close result, it would have made sense to wait before congratulating one of the candidates. But Netanyahu’s Likud party won in a landslide, leaving no doubt as to who will run the country.

Obama also used “protocol” as an excuse to refuse to meet Netanyahu earlier this month, when the prime minister came to Washington to deliver his contentious speech to Congress.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., the United States, calling for rejection of a bad nuclear deal with Iran. on March 03, 2015. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill, calling for rejection of a bad nuclear deal with Iran. on March 03, 2015. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“Obama can of course use protocol as a pretext for not having called right away, just as Joe Biden cited scheduling differences,” Oren said, referring to the vice president’s explanation that he would skip Netanyahu’s address to Congress because he had to travel to Panama. But it’s quite obvious that Obama, who is probably still recovering from the shock that was Netanyahu’s triumphant reelection, is sending a message to Jerusalem, he said.

“The fact that he hasn’t called is a warning,” explained Oren, who served as adviser to prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. “He’s not telling Netanyahu, ‘Now that you won, everything starts from scratch.’ He’s basically saying, ‘I haven’t forgotten and I haven’t forgiven.’”

While White House officials have been making no effort to mask their unhappiness over the election result, hinting quite broadly that they will not make Netanyahu’s life easier, it is not clear what, in concrete terms, Jerusalem can expect from Washington in the months ahead.

“There is no doubt that statements made by the prime minister during the campaign, coupled with the fact that the most likely outcome of this election is a right-wing government, will put severe pressure on an already strained relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama,” said Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on US-Israeli relations at Bar-Ilan University.

The administration is unlikely to initiate another round of bilateral peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Rather, it will “let both sides just stew in their juices,” he predicted. More critically, Washington might refuse to stand up for Israel if Ramallah pushes for unilateral moves at the United Nations, he suggested.

“There is a serious possibility that the US will not automatically veto resolutions that Israel finds problematic in international forums,” he said, referring in particular to France’s efforts to pass a draft resolution that calls for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. Such a move could have a dramatic impact, such as attempts by the international community to levy harsh economic and political sanctions on Israel.

Several administration officials told The New York Times that the US might now agree to the passing of such a resolution. This is clearly a stern response to Netanyahu, who doubled down on his resolute rejection of any territorial concessions in the final days of the election campaign. (Given the anticipated international backlash, he might actually soon walk back his repudiation of Palestinian statehood, at least partially.)

Either way, in the absence of a willing Israeli negotiating partner, the Americans could simply release their own peace plan that would delineate the parameters of a future final-status agreement, according to a former senior diplomatic official. The administration could declare that the two-state solution is the one and only answer to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and that it is no longer interested in looking for alternatives.

“If the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution, let them clearly say so for everyone to hear. Then the Americans will take their plan and keep it for better days,” the former official said. “The US could say to the Israelis: ‘This is the only game in town. If you want to play ball, call us. If you don’t play to ball, don’t bother. Just don’t call us when you get in trouble at the UN.’”

Despite the Obama administration’s possible non-veto at the UN, it will still likely oppose Palestinian attempts to see Israel prosecuted at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, though not for love of the Netanyahu government but its own internal reasons. The US never signed the Rome Statute that established the court and fears the prosecution of its troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What’s certain already now is that Netanyahu will have to fend off fierce diplomatic assaults on several fronts. Even a congratulatory phone call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue won’t change that.

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