This week, the Obama administration had decidedly different attitudes about statements from leaders of the Jewish state of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As the negotiations on a nuclear deal in Lausanne, Switzerland, between the P5+1 powers and Iran near their March 31 deadline, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to a crowd in Tehran shouting "Death to America" that, “Of course yes, death to America, because America is the original source of this pressure."
Khamenei was referencing the sanctions that have been levied on the Iranian economy and indicated an antagonistic view of the U.S. that was clearly at odds with statements made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who recently said that "achieving a deal is possible” by the deadline.
In response to this statement by Khamenei, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that his remarks simply “underscore why it is so critically important” that the U.S. and other world powers “succeed in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
The White House clearly found it easy to downplay Khamenei's threat. But the matter at hand is not whether this attitude was right or wrong, but instead, how Earnest's response contrasts with the White House's recent statements about re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A day before the March 17 election, Netanyahu declared that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. Days after the election, Netanyahu clarified his position, telling NBC News he supports a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state if specific circumstances make that a realistic possibility.
“I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution," Netanyahu said.
On Monday, Netanyahu also apologized for election-day comments in which he warned that Israeli Arabs were putting his government “in danger” by coming out “en masse” to vote.
President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, at the J Street conference called Netanyahu's pre-election remarks on a Palestinian state "very troubling" and said that his subsequent “contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution." McDonough added, “we cannot simply pretend that these [pre-election] comments were never made." Earnest, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, and Obama himself all issued similar comments about their mistrust of Netanyahu's stated stance on a two-state solution.
These varied responses by the Obama administration—one soft, the other strongly critical—to the behavior of Iranian and Israeli leaders, respectively, highlights the severity of the current rift between Obama and Netanyahu. That rift must be fairly wide if the U.S. is willing to overlook the threatening rhetoric emanating from Iran just days before the nuclear deadline, but take such a hard line against Netanyahu's comments, which might have been merely campaign rhetoric followed by damage control on the prime minister's part. Is election rhetoric really all that different in the U.S.? Is this the first time a politician apparently made conflicting statements in order to get votes?
On Tuesday, the U.S. government also accused Israel of spying on closed-door Iranian nuclear talks and sharing that information with American lawmakers. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. only found out about this when its own intelligence agencies intercepted and spied on Israeli communication.
“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” a senior U.S. official said.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon immediately denied the spying allegation, saying "there is no way" that the report is true. "Apparently someone has an interest in sparking a dispute, or creating a bad atmosphere in our relations," he said.
But even if the report is true, perhaps giving the U.S. the right to be angry at Israel, it's worth asking: Why would the Israeli government feel the need to spy on the nuclear talks?
Perhaps it has something to do with the unease Israel feels amid the White House's ongoing criticism of the Jewish state. After all, based on recent events, why should the Israeli government trust the U.S. to keep Israel's security in mind during nuclear talks with Iran?
For better or for worse, which country is America's ally in the Middle East? Deal or no deal, and internal disagreements between the governments aside, the answer is definitely not Iran.
But these days, judging by the White House's rhetoric, maybe that's not so clear.