Senior Likud MK: Obama’s criticism of PM ‘hypocritical’

Netanyahu confidant Tzachi Hanegbi hits back at US president, says comments against Israeli leader ‘totally unjustified’

MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

A senior Likud Knesset member and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit back at US President Barack Obama on Friday after an interview the American leader gave to The Atlantic in which he slammed Netanyahu.

“It’s amazing that the US president, the president of Israel’s most powerful ally, thinks it’s appropriate to voice criticism against us [Israel] when not a word of criticism is heard [from him] on neighboring countries on various issues, like the country with the most executions — Iran, with whom he is making great efforts to reconcile. He needs to see things in proportion,” Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio Friday morning.

Hanegbi said Obama’s comments were “discomfiting” in nature as he tries to navigate the battle to “win over the admiration of US Jews ahead of the Iran issue [the emerging nuclear deal being negotiated between the P5+1 and Iran].”

“I think his approach is totally unjustified and there’s no small measure of hypocrisy,” Hanegbi added.

Hanegbi is coalition chairman and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman.

Obama on Thursday defended his fierce criticism of Netanyahu in the wake of the March elections in Israel, arguing that such criticism lends him credibility when defending the Jewish state in international arenas, and rejected attempts to equate his censure of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism.

In a wide-ranging interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Obama said that his criticism of Netanyahu, who on election day warned in a frantic video that Israel’s Arab citizens were streaming to the polls “in droves,” related to the very “nature of the friendship between the United States and Israel.” He also said that comments such as Netanyahu’s have “foreign-policy consequences.”

That criticism, which rattled the already fraught relationship between the two governments, was due to Netanyahu straying from “the very language of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which explicitly states that all people regardless of race or religion are full participants in the democracy,” said Obama, who also took Netanyahu to task for asserting in the run-up to the election that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

Both statements by the prime minister appeared geared to rally right-wing voters, although the comment about Arab voters was also widely criticized as racist. Days after the comments were made, the prime minister apologized while speaking to a group of representatives of the Arab community whom he invited to his office.

Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)
Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)

Obama at the time slammed Netanyahu for his remarks, saying they were “contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions,” and that it “erodes the name of democracy in the country.

“When something like that happens, that has foreign-policy consequences, and precisely because we’re so close to Israel, for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on these issues,” he told Goldberg on Tuesday; the interview was published Thursday.

“And when I am then required to come to Israel’s defense internationally, when there is anti-Semitism out there, when there is anti-Israeli policy that is based not on the particulars of the Palestinian cause but based simply on hostility, I have to make sure that I am entirely credible in speaking out against those things, and that requires me then to also be honest with friends about how I view these issues.

“My hope is that over time [the] debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if, if all we are talking about is based from fear,” he said.

Obama conjured many of Israel’s most iconic figures and symbols to stress his long-standing support of, and admiration for, the Jewish state.

“I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of… kibbutzim and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it.”

According to the president, the Jewish state was founded on lessons learned from hardships and persecution, which were applied to how it governs and treats others. Those values, he claimed, had helped nurture his own political beliefs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with US president Barack Obama at the White House, October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meeting with US President Barack Obama (right) at the White House, October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Despite his frayed relations with Netanyahu, Obama claimed the Jewish community in the US has been consistently supportive of his approach, expressing satisfaction with the 70-percent support he garnered among Jews in his last election victory in 2012.

Sympathizing with Jewish concerns worldwide over “the emergence of a more overt and dangerous anti-Semitism,” Obama acknowledged that such hatred would “make people fearful.”

But he also warned against equating support of the Jewish community with unconditional support of Israel.

“There has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government,” he said, alluding to his Republican critics.

“If you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates [to them that] you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish.”

He said he “completely rejects” the notion that disagreeing publicly with the Israeli government made one anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish.

Goldberg asked Obama if the fact that the Iranian regime is anti-Semitic, and thus possessed of a warped view of the way the world works, shouldn’t preclude a negotiating strategy that treats Tehran as a rational player. But the president replied that the regime’s survival instinct is more powerful than other calculations, including its hatred of Jews and imperialist aspirations.

“Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival,” he said. “It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”

Tehran, he continued, won’t make irrational decisions — an apparent reference to the regime breaking away to a nuclear weapon or attacking another country — that would threaten its very survival.

Obama said that were Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon despite the emerging deal with the US and other world powers, it would have his “name” on it and be a sign of personal failure.

“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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