The White House has made clear its dismay at Binyamin Netanyahu’s sweeping victory in the Israeli elections with a stinging rebuke of the “divisive rhetoric” used by the Israeli leader in the closing stages of the election.
President Obama has not called to congratulate Netanyahu, who is now attempting to build a coalition between rightwing parties and his own Likud, which won decisively in parliamentary elections on Tuesday.
But the White House said it would be forced to re-evaluate its policy on the Middle East peace process after Netanyahu abandoned a prior commitment to an independent Palestinian state, apparently to shore up support among conservatives in Israel.
Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, reaffirmed the president’s belief in the two-state solution, and strongly condemned Netanyahu’s decision to rally support with incendiary remarks about a high turnout among Israeli Arab voters. Netanyahu used a 28-second video on election day to warn that Israeli Arabs were being bussed to the polls “in droves”.
“The United States and this administration is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalise Arab Israeli citizens,” Earnest said. “It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together.”
He added: “Rhetoric that seeks to marginalise one segment of their population is deeply concerning, it is divisive, and I can tell you that these are views the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.”
Earnest said the president would call Netanyahu “in the coming days”, but played down suggestions that the delay was itself a rebuke. In two previous Israeli elections, Earnest said, Obama did not telephone Netanyahu until the PM was directed by the Israeli president to form a government.
Netanyahu’s eve-of-poll comments, in which he unequivocally ruled out the creation of an independent Palestinian state, backtracked on his previous commitment and undermined a cornerstone of White House Middle East policy. It scuppered hopes that had been brewing in the State Department that the talks could, once again, be resuscitated.
The remark also confirmed suspicions among Palestinians, and shared privately by some in the Obama administration, that Netanyahu was never committed to the negotiations in the first place.
The secretary of state John Kerry, who has fought hard on the Middle East peace process, and was in Switzerland for the final stages of nuclear talks with Iran that Netanyahu has fought hard to scupper, pointedly refused to respond to questions about the Israeli election results.
State Department officials later said that Kerry called Netanyahu to congratulate him on the results. “It was a brief phone call,” said Jen Psaki, his chief spokesperson. “They did not discuss substantive issues.”
Washington’s frosty response to Netanyahu’s unexpectedly decisive victory came as analysts predicted that relations between Israeli prime minister and the US president would not recover until Obama’s term comes to an end.
The rift between the Obama administration and the Israeli government reached rock-bottom earlier this month, after Netanyahu snubbed the White House by using a controversial speech before the Republican-dominated Congress to denounce the emerging nuclear deal with Iran.
“What I see is Netanyahu waiting this out until Obama’s successor is in post,” a well-placed diplomatic source told the Guardian. “The Israelis have good enough contacts in Congress and the Pentagon to keep going until either Hillary Clinton or a Republican president is elected in 2016. Israel will ride this out.”
Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship, which has been strained for years, has dramatically deteriorated over the last 12 months. The collapse of the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in April damaged relations with Washington and exposed the lack of influence wielded by Kerry.
Months later, Israel’s seven-week military bombardment of Gaza further strained relations with the White House, which backed its traditional ally while expressing growing unease over the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Kerry’s attempts to broker a ceasefire in the conflict also ended in embarrassing failure – and hostile briefing against the secretary of state from Israeli sources, further infuriating the White House.
Yet it was Netanyahu’s decision to deliver his speech against an Iran nuclear deal before the Republican-controlled Congress that did most to anger the Obama administration.
Senior White House figures have publicly downplayed the damage to relations, but the consequences of Netanyahu’s speech were immediate and far-reaching.
Three days after Netanyahu’s visit, in a significant move that went largely unreported in the US media, the White House quietly appointed a figure controversial in Israel to a key post for Middle East policy.
Rob Malley, who already had a senior role at the National Security Council, was made special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region.
Malley, who replaces Obama’s senior aide Philip Gordon, was fired from Obama’s 2008 campaign team after it emerged he had met Hamas in his previous role with the International Crisis Group.
An adviser in the Clinton White House, Malley was also part of the failed Camp David talks in 2000. He later penned an assessment of the negotiations that challenged a consensus view that blamed the Palestinian delegation.
Although Malley is widely respected in policy circles, his promotion by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, showed defiance to Israeli critics. “It could be that the promotion was supposed to send a message to Israel,” the diplomatic source said.
Source: The Guardian