Obama raises stakes in Bibi feud

Obama raises stakes in Bibi feud
© Getty Images

The White House is escalating its feud with reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, suggesting the United States might make a significant change in its stance at the United Nations.

ADVERTISEMENT

President Obama on Thursday called to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory, but also chided the Israeli leader for declaring just days before his election he would not support the creation of a Palestinian state.

Obama told Netanyahu the U.S. would “need to reassess our options” regarding relations with Israel, according to a White House official. 

He also took issue with Netanyahu’s warning to his supporters about Arab-Israeli citizens voting in high numbers, the official said. The White House has called those comments “cynical” and “divisive.”

In multiple interviews, Netanyahu has walked back his comments about Palestinian statehood.

It remains unclear how far the White House is willing to go to punish Netanyahu for his campaign, which included a controversial address to Congress that dozens of Democrats boycotted.

The White House has hewed to a tough line, stating repeatedly that the U.S-Israel relationship might be altered by Netanyahu’s remark about a two-state solution.

“I think they’re trying to send a very specific and tough message to Prime Minister Netanyahu, which is, ‘We’ve paid attention to the words you’ve used during the campaign and if they are in fact going to be your policy, they will have an impact on our relationship,’” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under George W. Bush who is now a professor of Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University. 

“It’s a shot across the bow,” added Kurtzer, who said the White House’s warnings “should be taken quite seriously.” 

White House officials say no decisions have been made about policy changes with regards to Israel.

Press secretary Josh Earnest and others have floated the possibility that the U.S. will not veto some resolutions at the United Nations Security Council that are deemed hostile to Israel. That includes language designed to pressure Israel into accepting a Palestinian state and condemning Israeli settlement activity. 

Netanyahu’s comments from before the election show that support for a two-state solution “is a view that’s not shared by the Israeli prime minister, at least it’s unclear whether or not he holds that view anymore,” Earnest said Friday. 

The last time the U.S. backed a U.N. resolution against Israel was in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan supported a measure condemning Israel's strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. 

Obama’s dispute with Netanyahu has angered Republicans on Capitol Hill and put pro-Israel Democrats in a tough spot.

Should the administration change its Israel policy, the backlash from members of both parties could be intense.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he suspects the administration is bluffing about its U.N. threat.

If “there’s a resolution hostile to Israel, I would expect that this administration would veto it,” Sherman told BuzzFeed.

Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerA renewed emphasis on research and development funding is needed from the government Data shows seven Senate Democrats have majority non-white staffs Trump may be DACA participants' best hope, but will Democrats play ball? MORE (D-N.Y.) also said in a statement to The Weekly Standard he “expects” the U.S. to continue backing Israel at the U.N. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was “near tears” after Netanyahu’s address to Congress earlier this month, in which he criticized Obama’s efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. 

But Pelosi on Wednesday softened her rhetoric, saying she respects the results of Israel’s election and pledged the U.S. would continue to work with the Jewish state. 

“It doesn’t depend on personalities,” Pelosi said of U.S.-Israel relations. “It’s about values that we share. And we look forward to continuing our work together.”

The White House is not willing to put everything on the table when it comes to reevaluating its policy toward Israel. Earnest said the reassessment “will have no impact” on security cooperation with Israel. The U.S. has provided almost $100 billion in military aid to Israel over the past five decades.

Pro-Israel groups have urged Obama to put his dispute with Netanyahu to rest.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been at odds with Obama over Netanyahu and Iran, urged the president to mend ties with his Israeli counterpart. 

“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the U.S,” the group said in a statement. “In contrast to their comments, we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East.”

White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughSusan Rice calls for Flynn-Kislyak transcripts to be released GOP seeks to go on offense using Flynn against Biden Tucker Carlson: Flynn case was domestic spying operation 'hidden under the pretext of national security' MORE on Monday will deliver a keynote address to the national conference of J Street, a group that has positioned itself as an alternative to AIPAC and has been critical of Netanyahu.