Is Obama Being Too Hard on Netanyahu?

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In a successful last-minute effort to rally his supporters, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he no longer favors a two-state solution, and warned on Election Day that Arab voters were turning out “in droves.” Over the past week, the White House has said repeatedly that those remarks hurt efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible,” Obama said on Friday, describing his ostensibly congratulatory phone call with Netanyahu, which he waited two days to place.

The initial complaints from the White House are certainly understandable. In addition to Netanyahu’s preelection comments, which angered many around the world, he just delivered an unauthorized speech to Congress, and Israel reportedly spied on U.S. officials as part of a campaign to scuttle a nuclear deal with Iran. However, now Israeli analysts from across the political spectrum are saying Obama’s made his point and should really think about dialing down his criticism of Netanyahu.

The New York Times reports that Israeli analysts think White House officials may be “overplaying their hand” and “inviting a backlash of sympathy” for Netanyahu by lashing out at the man Israel just reelected to a fourth term. As expected, Netanyahu walked back his remarks right after the election, and former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland suggested the U.S. needs to get over the fact that the prime minister said something alarming just to get elected. “Everybody understands this is part of the political campaign,” said Eiland, though he’s generally no fan of the prime minister. “To try and say: ‘I caught you; I heard you say something. Since that’s what you said, I’m going to make a reassessment,’ it sounds like, ‘Well, I have been waiting until you make such a mistake, and now I’m going to exploit it.’”

At this point, it’s not clear why the U.S. is harping on Netanyahu’s “mistake” (or his intentional misrepresentation of his stance on one of the biggest issues facing the world). It’s possible that the Obama administration is just focused on reaching an Iranian nuclear deal without interference from Israel. Or as some administration officials have suggested, it could signal a larger shift in U.S. policy toward Israel; specifically, that the U.S. may support a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a two-state solution.

At a press conference on Thursday, Obama gave no indication that he intends to tone down his comments regarding Netanyahu. “What we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility for something that’s not there,” Obama said of the prospect for a Middle East peace deal. “And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years … For the sake of our own credibility I think we have to be able to be honest about that.”

He added that the U.S.-Israeli relationship shouldn’t be reduced to a personal conflict between him and Netanyahu. “The notion is, well, if we’d all just get along, everybody cools down, then somehow the problem goes away,” Obama explained, saying both leaders believe they’re representing their country’s interests as best they can. “We believe two states is the best way forward for Israeli security and for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability. That’s our view,” Obama added. “The prime minister has a different approach, and so this can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing ’Kumbaya.’”