Obama – Netanyahu tensions may worsen

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral victory in the March 17 elections was greeted by an immediate crisis with the Obama administration, when some of his comments aimed at wooing right-wing voters in the campaign’s final days angered the White House.

The administration perceived Netanyahu’s statement that there would not be a Palestinian state on his watch as a repudiation of his commitment to a two-state outcome. Immediately after the election, the prime minister insisted that he remained committed to two states, but President Barack Obama chose to believe that his election remarks were more authentic than his clarification, in keeping with his well-known doubts about Netanyahu’s support for that goal. While pledging not to touch U.S.-Israeli military or intelligence cooperation, Obama told the Huffington Post that he took Netanyahu “at his word” that a Palestinian state will not happen during his tenure, and that Washington needed to evaluate all other options to avoid chaos.


Beyond this latest grievance, bilateral relations are almost certain to hit greater turbulence in the coming months, over both the Palestinian issue and the more urgent matter of whether the United States and its negotiating partners strike a nuclear deal with Iran. In principle, the two issues are completely separate, but both are trending toward crises that will only exacerbate the iciness between Obama and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s speech to Congress earlier this month highlighted Israel’s disagreements with the White House over how to proceed on Iran, even though he implied for the first time that he was not insisting on zero uranium enrichment. The tension surrounding the speech stemmed from a variety of incidents — most recently, an Obama administration spokesman confirmed media reports that Washington has not been sharing information with Israel lately due to sensitivity in the Iran talks, but the problems date back to when Washington first opened a secret channel with Tehran without telling Israel.

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Apart from the specifics of an Iran agreement, the United States and Israel need to reach a set of understandings about the wider context of any deal. This means that in addition to defining quantifiable methods for enforcing Iranian compliance and outlining precise mechanisms for penalizing consequential violations, Washington will need to provide assurances that the accord is not political shorthand for a change in the balance of regional power toward Iran at the expense of Sunni Arab countries and Israel. If Tehran emerges from the negotiations believing it has a free hand to act regionally — and with additional cash due to the easing of sanctions — Israel will feel nervous even if it is not directly threatened. The question remains whether Iran is entitled to an industrial-size nuclear capability after an agreement expires, irrespective of whether the regime acts in a destabilizing manner. Given all of these issues, Washington and Israel will find it difficult to adequately address their differences before the July 1 deadline for reaching a final agreement with Iran.

If that timetable was not enough of a constraint, two other factors have entered the mix. First, Netanyahu will be quite busy building his coalition of right-of-center parties, which he has made clear he wants to complete within three weeks. Second, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that he will visit Israel at the end of this month, a move that is bound to revive speculation about Netanyahu seeking further coordination with him on Iran, since Boehner was the one who invited him to address Congress.


Presumably, Netanyahu would prefer to coordinate first with the Obama administration on key Iran issues, and he should make that preference abundantly clear even amid the current tensions. If spurned, however, he will most likely intensify consultations with Boehner. Although going that route and focusing on congressional oversight of an Iran deal would open Netanyahu up to U.S. accusations of partisanship, he would likely claim that he had no choice since he is disregarded by the White House, and since the stakes for Israel are existential. The upshot is greater Israeli tension with the Obama administration in the months ahead as the congressional debate over Iran is likely to intensify.

During recent media backgrounders, Obama administration officials have signaled their apparent belief that going to the United Nations Security Council is the only hope for resolving issues that have kept the peace process from advancing. The question is whether the Security Council will be asked to pass a resolution outlining a core solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, if so, whether the United States will veto it. This would be a departure from the premise that has held since 1967: that it is up to the parties themselves to negotiate the contours of any solution.

Netanyahu would view any such resolution as shooting past redlines, and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas might feel the same depending on its terms. Based on media reports surrounding the European and Jordanian initiatives at the Security Council in December, a resolution would likely call for two capitals in Jerusalem, a territorial solution based on the 1967 lines and territorial exchanges, and language defining Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people. Whatever the case, Netanyahu would likely declare his opposition to any imposed solution, especially on emotive issues such as Jerusalem. In his view, it would open the door to future sanctions against Israel in the event of noncompliance.

If Obama does not demonstrate a willingness to urgently address concerns about the Iranian nuclear deal, and if Netanyahu does not publicly declare a settlement policy that backs up his commitment to a two-state solution, a full-blown diplomatic collision will likely result. The question remains whether the requisite political will exists to prevent such an outcome.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.

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