Opposition takes Netanyahu to task after Obama interview

Herzog links harsh US criticism to PM’s Congress address; Liberman says Israel’s image in decline due to bad public diplomacy

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog seen during a Zionist Camp party meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on June 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog seen during a Zionist Camp party meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on June 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Leading Israeli political figures traded barbs Wednesday and brooded over the declining state of Israel-US ties, after US President Barack Obama told Israeli TV that the Jewish state could face international isolation if it stonewalls peace talks with the Palestinians.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Obama’s comments indicated a “serious break” in bilateral ties between the two nations and cudgeled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for harming rather than rehabilitating what is seen as Israel’s most strategic relationship.

In Tuesday’s interview with Channel 2, Obama showed a marked lack of optimism regarding the prospects for a breakthrough in the peace process over the remainder of his term, and intimated that the automatic US veto for anti-Israel motions in international bodies may not last forever.

“The danger is that Israel as a whole loses credibility. Already the international community does not believe that Israel is serious about the two-state solution,” Obama said, in a reference to recent contradictory statements from Netanyahu that sharpened doubts as to his commitment to Palestinian statehood.

“Obama is a friend of Israel and cares about its security,” Herzog told Army Radio Wednesday.

“He said some very harsh things. I personally want to say ‘I told you so’ — because during the elections, when the prime minister finished his speech in Congress, I said then that it caused great damage to our relationship with the US,” he said, referring to Netanyahu’s polarizing March 3 speech on the Iran nuclear deal before the US Congress.

“For decades we haven’t been in a situation where an American president refuses to meet with the prime minister and chooses instead to speak to the Israeli people in a television interview,” Herzog continued, before addressing Israel’s attempts to influence the terms of an emerging deal between Iran and the international community that would curb Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons drive.

“The Iranian issue is a major national challenge, but in order to fight it, to ensure Israel’s standing among the nations… to ensure that the US veto [UN resolutions to exert pressure on Israel], we need to speak with the administration and conduct intimate dialogue. Not humiliate it,” he said.

Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the right-wing opposition party Yisrael Beytenu, attacked Netanyahu from another angle, claiming that Jerusalem’s declining standing in the eyes of Obama and on the international stage stemmed from the lack of a more aggressive strategy on the Palestinian front and poor public diplomacy, or hasbara.

“Our problem isn’t just with President Obama. Our problem is an idea — it’s our national strategy: On the Palestinian issue, hasbara, our Gaza policy and our strategy against Hezbollah,” he said.

“When you don’t have a clear strategy, and you constantly change your stance — without a clear and consistent approach that you can fight for — it’s difficult to explain yourself. It’s difficult for us to explain ourselves when you split the responsibility for hasbara between six different bodies,” he said, referring to Netanyahu’s division of Foreign Ministry responsibilities between a string of ministers and deputy ministers.

Liberman was foreign minister in Netanyahu’s previous administration.

According to Liberman, the government should take hasbara more seriously, concentrate it under one governing body, and beef up funding to NIS 1 billion ($259 million).

“It’s difficult to work when your budget is less than the advertising budget for ‘Milky,'” he said, referring to a popular Israeli chocolate pudding.

“It’s untenable that those responsible for forming Israel’s foreign policy are two folks from Las Vegas,” Liberman noted, taking a swipe at Netanyahu’s major donors, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who are widely seen as exerting undue influence in Israeli politics through their financial support for the Likud chief.

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