The Obama administration’s frustration with Benjamin Netanyahu is turning into outright hostility after the Israeli prime minister’s commanding victory this week.
Administration officials greeted his win with harsh words Wednesday and suggestions that the U.S. might scale back its support for Israel at the United Nations, a significant reversal in policy after years of vetoing resolutions damaging to Jerusalem.
A senior administration official said that Netanyahu’s sharp tacks to the right before Tuesday’s vote – in which he ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state, a pillar of U.S. policy in the Middle East – “raise very significant substantive concerns” for the White House, and that “we have to reassess our options going forward.”
Another senior U.S. official told CNN that Netanyahu’s nixing of Palestinian statehood “could change things” for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
That official said the administration is waiting to see if Netanyahu walks back his comments. He warned, “We are in a very, very different situation than we have been in years if that is not the case.”
But in some ways, they already are. President Barack Obama made it clear to Netanyahu on Wednesday that the Israeli prime minister, with whom he has repeatedly clashed, is still in the doghouse – likely more so than ever before.
A troubled relationship
Yet now that Netanyahu has been reelected, the two leaders will have to work with each other for the next two years. How their troubled relationship will affect cooperation on the high-stakes issues facing both countries – Iran’s nuclear program, regional violence and the future of the Palestinians – remains to be seen. But America’s historic support for Israel at the U.N., as well as any White House ambitions of brokering further Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, seem likely to be affected sooner rather than later.
Instead of Obama, it was Secretary of State John Kerry who called Netanyahu Wednesday to congratulate him on his victory. The President is expected to call only “in the coming days,” according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
In the meantime, Earnest had some hard language of his own for Netanyahu, particularly concerning campaign rhetoric in which the prime minister described Arabs as “voting in droves.” The administration, Earnest said, is “deeply concerned” over the prime minister’s “divisive” rhetoric about the Arab population.
A senior official who did not wish to be named went further, calling Netanyahu’s words “offensive” and contrary to a democracy, where “we expect that you will treat your citizens equally.”
While some quickly downplayed Netanyahu’s comments as nothing more than political theater, Netanyahu’s explicit opposition to a Palestinian state marked a departure from the policy of American administrations – Republican and Democrat – for more than a decade.
His apparently successful gambit to drive right-wing voters to the polls has sunk his relationship with Obama lower even than it was two weeks ago, when the Israeli leader made a controversial address to Congress openly opposing the administration’s Iran policy in a move Democrats saw as highly partisan.
While U.S. officials continue to insist that U.S. support for Israel’s security is sacrosanct, they have suggested that U.S. political support for Israel at the U.N. and with its European allies could suffer if the rift between the U.S. and Israel deepens.
Steven Simon, a former National Security Council official under Obama, said that given the strain with Netanyahu, the White House might now consider paring down the defense American diplomats play for Israel at the U.N.
The U.S. typically uses its veto power to swat away any anti-Israel resolutions or Palestinian attempts at reaching statehood through the U.N. Now, American diplomats could instead authorize some resolutions after edits or abstain from voting on them.
“That in itself in the context of administration policy would be a fairly dramatic step,” Simon said.
Any drop in American support would come at a time when Israel needs that diplomatic backing more than ever. Palestinians joined the International Criminal Court in January and plan to file their first war crimes case against Israel next month. There is also a resolution under consideration that calls for a two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders, something Jerusalem opposes.
Security aid unaffected
U.S. officials and members of Congress stress, however, that the tensions with Israel won’t lead to any cuts to the massive security aid package the U.S. funnels to Israel every year or to any change in the close military cooperation between the two countries.
“I think the military to military and intelligence cooperation is going to go on no matter who is in that office,” California Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat, told CNN as Israelis flocked to the polls, though he warned that the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama could deteriorate even further.
But Netanyahu’s electioneering isn’t costing him any support from his base in the U.S.: Republican lawmakers.
Arizona Sen. John McCain welcomed the election news by tweeting, “Congrats to Bibi – the comeback kid!”
And potential Republican presidential contenders quickly blasted out statements lauding Netanyahu, many of them comparing him to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Republicans stand to gain from victory by Netanyahu, who could bolster their argument that Obama is preparing a deal with Iran that could endanger the U.S. and Israel. And Netanyahu will also remain a thorn in Obama’s side as the prospect of that deal nears.
Democrats had more mixed reactions.