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Obama’s harsh advice to Netanyahu

Mar 04,2014 - Last updated at Mar 04,2014

Just a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due in Washington to meet US President Barack Obama at the White House, Monday, every concerned observer was stunned by the content of the president’s interview with Geoffrey Goldberg of the Bloomberg View.

The president’s words were unprecedented in their candour, openness and even harshness, but objectively every word he said was correct and in Israel’s vital interest.

And yet, David Horowitz (The Times of Israel, March, 3) described the president’s statements as earth-shattering, saying that they “constituted a brutal political assault” on the Israeli PM before he had arrived. 

Obama used the strongest language in criticising Netanyahu’s ongoing settlement policy, blaming the Israeli PM for attempting to maintain “a chronic situation” as regards the Palestinians.

Obama emphasised the fact that time was running out for Israel to achieve a peace deal, stressing his belief that Netanyahu has the capacity to rally the Israelis behind an agreement. But if the Israeli leader “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach”, said Obama.

The US president’s emphasis on the issue of Israeli settlement activity was well beyond the usual, apparently letting out in one go years of frustration with Netanyahu’s obstinate arrogance on this disturbing matter.

The president unequivocally stressed that the settlement construction in the West Bank, across the Green Line, is counterproductive and would make it extremely difficult for the US to defend Israel from painful repercussions in the international community. This may sound more like a threat than a cordial warning in Israel, but it is the reality.

“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said, adding a number of stinging questions: “Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? .... Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”

According to what we know, the tradition of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is that while talking, each side takes every possible precaution to avoid being blamed for the failure of the talks.

As a way of applying pressure on the problematic side, the US, the main patron of the current talks, did indeed threaten to identify the side responsible for any possible failure if that is the inevitable outcome of the negotiations.

But traditionally also, Israel would hardly be blamed. If there is deadlock, both sides are normally reprehended. Never Israel on its own, as we see with much astonishment every time.

Singling out Israel for responsibility in advance for the possible breakdown of the Kerry mission is certainly troubling enough from the point of view of Israel and its many US supporters, particularly when that comes on the eve of the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a festival of prodigious support for Israel from countless American political leaders and others.

What is worse, though, is the US president’s praise for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas “has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve” the conflict, President Obama said, adding: “We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.”

When the president was asked whether he felt that the PA leader was sincere about his willingness to recognise Israel and its right to exist, he replied in the affirmative. 

Obama was extremely generous in describing Abbas as possessing “a rare quality not just within the Palestinian territories, but in the Middle East generally…. [F]or us not to seize that opportunity would be a mistake.”

Obama’s emphasis that it is time for tough decisions for Israel could not be missed in this important interview.

But let us make no mistake. The US president is not expect to adopt the Palestinian position on the other final status issues (Jerusalem, the right of return, borders and, most seriously, the Israeli demand that Israel be recognised as the home of the Jewish people) in its entirety.

The president addressed one issue: the settlements. He did not even ask for the removal of the existing illegal settlements that already encircle Jerusalem and cover most of the West Bank. All he did was to strongly condemn Israeli insistence on continued expansion. 

Obviously the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, which was to be followed by a follow up meeting with President Abbas, was not expected to be easy. Apparently Obama wanted to step in directly in support of Secretary of State John Kerry to rescue his faltering peace mission. Kerry’s problem was more on the Israeli side.

In anticipation of that, and according to Horowitz, Netanyahu, was hoping to avoid confrontation by accepting Kerry’s framework as a non-binding basis for further negotiations.

“And he must have had little hope that he was going to shift Obama’s stance on Iran, however powerful he believes his arguments to be. So not much point in confrontation there, either,” Horowitz added.

It looks like the US president’s tolerance for Netanyahu’s tricks, futile political games, blatant intransigence and the constant claim that security should justify all Israeli illegal behaviour has reached the limit. He had to put up with heaps of that over the past few years but now, it seems, enough is enough.

Obama is not turning his back to Israel. All he is saying is what many have been saying for decades: Israel cannot be an occupier for ever; cannot live outside the terms of international law; cannot cancel the rights of the Palestinian people; cannot let its territorial greed, at the expense of the legal rights of the Palestinian people, loose forever and at the same time expect protection and support. 

Obama is simply sending the Israelis an overdue wake up call.

The Palestinians have been often mocked for “not missing an opportunity for missing an opportunity”, mostly by Israeli leaders. 

The truth is that this applies solely to Israel.

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