Obama versus Netanyahu: US-Israeli relations now in jeopardy

The contentious relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is just a glimpse of a tough road for Israeli peace with Iran. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, November 11, 2013 — In Jerusalem, a few sharp public exchanges between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Natenyahu have quickly undone efforts to calm relations between Israel and the U.S. government.

Following a recent visit, Kerry wondered in a televised interview whether or not Israel was serious about peace-talks with the Palestinians. Kerry told Israel’s Channel 2 last Thursday that Israel faces the possibility of international isolation and increased violence with the Palestinians if peace talks fail. He later acknowledged that Israel’s continued construction of settlements raises immediate concerns questions about Israel’s commitment to peace. An enraged Netanyahu erupted on an Israeli broadcast and rebuked Kerry’s comments. He said he “utterly rejects” any form of nuclear deal between the United States and Israel’s enemy, Iran.

The already fragile relationship between the Obama administration and the Israeli government is just a hint of the tougher, more contentious road ahead as Kerry plies his brand of diplomacy with Iran and the Palestinians. This incident worsens the already uncomfortable relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israeli news sources indicate that Netanyahu was “severely disappointed” in America’s attempt to make secret deals with the Iranians, the nation whose former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swore to erase Israel off the face of the earth with its nuclear arms. American talke of lifting sanctions tells the Israeli government that America is no longer as strong an ally as it once was.

Obama and Netenyahu took their respective offices in the same year. The two men have never truly shared common core beliefs. Both men appear uncomfortable in most of their meetings. So what’s the problem? U.S. presidents have always supported Israel without public reservation. Obama seems interested in being seen as more even-handed, so is more reserved in his support of Israel than his predecessors. He’s also more determined to make Israel talk to its enemies, and to do whatever is necessary to bring them to the negotiating table.

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But peace isn’t always possible through conversation. Netanyahu, who takes Iran’s threats seriously, strongly believes that Israel will soon be under attack and must protect itself, even without assistance from the United States.

The “elephant” in the room may be that Netanyahu tends to support American Republicans, supporting them in past elections. American conservatives take a much harder public stance in support of Israel, many for religious reasons, and they are much more militant about backing Israel’s armed forces. Domestic American politics are one more obstacle for both leaders to overcome.

The atmosphere between Washington and Jerusalem has soured further as Obama pressed forward with his major diplomatic initiatives for Israel. Netanyahu in turn released his plans to build thousands of homes on the East Bank, infuriating the Americans and Palestinians alike.

Netanyahu believes that international pressure on Iran, especially from the United States, should be increased until Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear program, not eased as an incentive to get Iran to stay at the negotiating table. His options appear very limited, despite threats to carry out an attack on Iran if Iran ever seriously threatens Israel. Netanyahu’s policies may protect the security of Israel, but they could derail American efforts and spark a global conflict in the Middle East.

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