JERUSALEM — A pair of testy public exchanges this week appear to have undone whatever good will was created between the Israeli and U.S. governments during a high-profile visit by President Obama early this year.
Tensions burst into the open during a swing through the region by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In an interview broadcast on both Israeli and Palestinian TV, Kerry questioned Israel’s seriousness about peace with the Palestinians. Hours later Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired back, vowing not to cave into concessions to the Palestinians — and also saying he “utterly rejects” an emerging nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.
The rancor signals a tough road ahead for the twin American goals of finding a diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear program and forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And it raises the specter of a return to the uncomfortable relationship that has often characterized dealings between Obama and Netanyahu.
Israeli news reports describe Netanyahu as being in “shock” over the possible Iranian compromise. Netanyahu, who sees Iran as an arch-enemy, has vowed to do anything, including a military strike, to prevent Iran from reaching weapons capability.
“If there were a synoptic map for diplomatic storms, the National Weather Service would be putting out a hurricane warning right now,” diplomatic correspondent Chemi Shalev wrote on the website of the newspaper Haaretz. “And given that the turbulence is being caused by an issue long deemed to be critical to Israel’s very existence, we may actually be facing a rare Category 5 flare up, a ‘superstorm’ of U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Obama and Netanyahu took office just months apart in 2009, but seemed to share little in common. At joint appearances they appeared uncomfortable and even occasionally sparred. In one famous instance, Netanyahu lectured Obama on the pitfalls of Mideast peacemaking in front of the TV cameras at a White House meeting.
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The lack of chemistry seems rooted in vastly different world views. Obama is a proponent of diplomacy and consensus, while Netanyahu believes Israel can trust no one and must protect itself.
Netanyahu also enjoys strong ties with U.S. Republicans. In 2012, he was widely perceived to have backed challenger Mitt Romney.
And there has been constant friction over Netanyahu’s insistence on continuing to settle Jews on occupied land even as he negotiates with the Palestinians.
Last March, Obama traveled to Israel for a visit widely seen as an attempt to reboot relations. The two leaders appeared together at a series of events, smiling and sharing jokes. But even then there were signs of trouble. Obama urged an audience of university students to pressure Israeli leaders to change their ways and take bold new steps to reach peace with the Palestinians.
Since then, officials on both sides have stressed the countries are close allies regardless of politics. But the atmosphere gradually soured again as Obama pressed forward with his two major diplomatic initiatives.
Over the summer, Kerry persuaded Israel and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table for the first time in nearly five years. The sides agreed to talk for nine months, with an April target date for reaching a peace deal.
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To get talks going, Palestinians dropped a longstanding demand for an Israeli freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured territories that the Palestinians claim for a future state. To get Palestinians back to talks, Israel committed to releasing 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners. The U.S. also apparently gave vague assurances settlement construction would be restrained.
With negotiations making no visible progress, Israel’s release of a second round of Palestinian prisoners two weeks ago — all jailed for killing Israelis — set off an uproar. Netanyahu followed the release by announcing plans to build thousands of settler homes, infuriating the Palestinians, the Americans and also the moderate camp in Israel itself.
In surprisingly blunt comments, Kerry told Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Thursday that Israel faced the possibility of international isolation and renewed violence with the Palestinians if peace efforts failed. He also said the continued settlement construction raised questions about Israel’s commitment to peace.
“How can you say, ‘We’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?’” Kerry said. “It sends a message that somehow perhaps you’re not really serious.”
Netanyahu responded the next morning ahead of a meeting with Kerry. “No amount of pressure will make me or the government of Israel compromise on the basic security and national interests of the State of Israel,” the visibly agitated premier said.
Netanyahu also slammed the emerging agreement with Iran. “Iran got the deal of the century, and the international community got a bad deal,” he said. “This is a very bad deal and Israel utterly rejects it.”
He warned that Israel is “not obliged” to honor the agreement and would do “everything it needs to do to defend itself.” Following a tense meeting stretching more than two hours, a planned joint appearance with Kerry and Netanyahu to the media was canceled.
While negotiators in Geneva hammered out details Saturday, the discussed deal appeared to include some relief from painful economic sanctions in exchange for limits on Iranian nuclear activity. However, chances of a deal being struck looked slim late Saturday.
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Saturday the Obama administration was “in full agreement with Israel on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon” and that the negotiations had that goal in mind.
But Netanyahu has said international pressure should be increased, not eased, until Iran dismantles all suspicious nuclear activities. That position puts him at odds with the U.S. as the White House urges Congress to hold off on new sanctions while negotiations are under way.
For now, Netanyahu’s options appear limited. Despite longstanding threats to carry out a military attack on Iran if necessary, it would be all but impossible to do so in the current diplomatic environment. On the Palestinian front, Netanyahu holds most of the leverage and is showing little inclination to change.
Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official, said that Netanyahu made an error by airing his grievances publicly.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public outburst was unfortunate and ill-advised,” Burns, who now teaches at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, wrote in an email. “It has gone down very badly in the U.S.”
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