WASHINGTON – While supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent Wednesday celebrating his surprise victory at the polls, the Obama administration took a much dimmer view of the results.
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.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters at the Likud party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday, March 18. Netanyahu appears poised to keep his job after Likud grabbed at least 29 of the 120 seats in Israel's parliament, according to unofficial numbers. The Zionist Union came in second, with at least 24 seats.
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.
Waning U.S. support for Israel at the U.N.?
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 some in Washington warn that it could diminish America’s historic support for Israel at the U.N., as well as any White House ambitions of brokering further Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
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 harsh words 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 United Nations 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.
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.
READ: Has Israel lost the Democratic Party?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who had criticized Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress against the White House’s wishes, said in a statement Wednesday that she hopes everyone will make fixing the U.S.-Israel relationship a priority, “regardless of political affiliation.”
But she also stressed that Israel must remain committed to a two-state solution “despite campaign rhetoric.”
New York Rep. Eliot Engel, however, seemed sure that Netanyahu would roll back his comments barring a Palestinian state and said people shouldn’t “read too much into it.”
Heated campaign rhetoric
“In the rhetoric and the heat of campaigns there are lots of things that are said,” Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN. “I think that when they get shaken out we’ll find out that not much has changed.”
Engel stressed that the countries’ shared democratic values would keep the relationship between the two partners strong regardless. And both sides have repeatedly pointed to mutual security concerns and other joint interests as factors that perpetually keep relations on track.
But the Obama administration said it was taking the Palestinian state comments at “face value” for now, with a senior official saying that while the White House understands heated rhetoric can be a part of a campaign, “there are policy ramifications.”
And some progressive Democrats aren’t so sure Netanyahu could or would refine his view on a Palestinian state, viewing his election strategy as a risky move that could further isolate Israel.
“It’s not just tensions between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. It’s a fundamental tension between what a majority of Americans [think],” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, one of nearly 60 Democrats to boycott Netanyahu’s speech last month.
Blumenauer voiced the frustration of many who have watched one peace process after another buckle and see Netanyahu’s decisive win with the help of right-wing votes making it unlikely the peace process will get a new beginning during Obama’s presidency.
For Blumenauer, there’s no doubt that “the ball’s in [Netanyahu’s] court” if he wants to massage strained ties.
READ: Obama and Netanyahu: A clash of world views, not just personalities
He’s not the only one to place the burden for an improvement in ties with Netanyahu — or to see the death of the peace process in his re-election.
“One hopes that when out of campaign mode, the prime minster would recognize the importance of the United States strategically to Israel and would take a step or two in the direction of trying to ease the tensions,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director or the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street. Asked whether the peace process could be reignited under Netanyahu, Ben-Ami was concise: “No.”
Maintaining the status quo
But a top George W. Bush adviser said that it was unlikely Netanyahu would be willing to do much to mend relations with Obama.
“From Netanyahu’s point of view, he is the person who has been sinned against, who has been treated badly for six years,” said Elliott Abrams, a former deputy National Security Council adviser.
Instead, it’s more likely Netanyahu and Obama will decide to live with the status quo of their relationship — unless, he suggested, they decide to learn from the ratcheting up of tensions in recent months.
The White House’s attacks on Netanyahu in the lead-up to the election didn’t sway Israelis and Netanyahu’s politicking and defiance of Obama only deepened the rift between the two leaders.
“Maybe it’s possible to just turn down the heat,” Abrams said. – CNN