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5 points of tension in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship

U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Oct. 1, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.
U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Oct. 1, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

When the champion of the U.S.-Israel alliance sounds the alarm, something about the steadfast allies’ relationship is more contentious than usual.

Last week, the staunchly bipartisan American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—which does not frequently issue public statements, let alone criticize a sitting American president—urged the Obama administration to “recommit to improving” U.S.-Israel ties. AIPAC’s March 19 statement came after White House and State Department spokespeople dismissed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaffirmation of his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

“Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the U.S.,” AIPAC said. “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.”

Josh Block, CEO & president of The Israel Project and a former AIPAC spokesman, told The Washington Post’s Right Turn blog, “It is quite rare for AIPAC to directly and publicly criticize the White House, and clearly there is a feeling that the president’s staff is acting in an irresponsible way that undermines America’s interests and vital relationship with our only reliable democratic ally in the region.”

Tension between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama is nothing new, but seems to have escalated to an even higher level. Here are five current sources of bitterness in the leaders’ relationship:


Much of the debate surrounding Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress about the Iranian nuclear threat centered on “protocol,” with the White House opposing the speech—and Vice President Joe Biden, who serves as president of the U.S. Senate, skipping the address—on the grounds that House Speaker John Boehner did not consult Obama about inviting Netanyahu. But the broader disagreement is about the emerging deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers, a group that includes the U.S., ahead of a March 31 deadline for a “political framework agreement” in the nuclear negotiations.

“This deal has two major concessions: one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program, and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade. … That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb, it paves Iran’s path to the bomb,” Netanyahu told Congress.

Given Iran’s repeated threats to annihilate Israel and sponsorship of anti-Jewish terrorism around the world, Netanyahu considers the outcome of the nuclear negotiations a matter of survival for the Jewish state. But the Islamic Republic doesn’t limit its genocidal rhetoric to Israel. On Saturday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei affirmed a Tehran crowd’s chants of “death to America.”

“Of course yes, death to America, because America is the original source of this pressure,” Khamenei said, referring to economic sanctions against Iran.

The two-state solution

A day before the March 17 Israeli election, Netanyahu said that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. But on March 19, the prime minister told NBC News that he supports “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”

“I haven’t changed my policy,” Netanyahu said. “I never retracted my speech at Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes a Jewish state.”

Obama, however, wasn’t sold.

“We take [Netanyahu] at his word when he said that [a Palestinian state] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region,” Obama told The Huffington Post in an interview published Saturday.

The U.N.

Reports citing anonymous U.S. sources have indicated that the Obama administration, within the context of its “reassessment” of relations with Israel, might break from longstanding American policy to defend Israel against United Nations resolutions that single out the Jewish state for criticism or promote the unilateral establishment of a Palestinian state. The U.S. has veto power in the U.N. Security Council.

Israeli Arabs

On election day, Netanyahu—whose Likud party had been trailing the Zionist Union party in the polls before Likud’s eventual decisive victory—warned, “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

After White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. “is deeply concerned about rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens,” Obama followed suit by issuing his own criticism of Netanyahu’s election-day remarks on Arab voters.

“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions,” Obama told The Huffington Post. “That although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly. And I think that that is what’s best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.”

Alleged U.S. funding of anti-Netanyahu campaign efforts

One specter that hung over the Israeli election was alleged U.S. State Department funding of efforts to unseat Netanyahu—and although the election has passed and Netanyahu will remain in power, an ongoing U.S. Senate probe means the issue is not going away.

The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations recently launched a bipartisan probe into the Washington, DC-based OneVoice Movement’s funding of efforts to defeat Netanyahu, Fox News reported. According to the report, OneVoice received $350,000 in recent tax-payer funded grants from the State Department. Ahead of the election, a subsidiary of OneVoice, the V15 group, campaigned in Israel against Netanyahu with a message of “simply replace the government.”

A source familiar with the matter told Fox News, “It’s confirmed that there is a bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee inquiry into OneVoice’s funding of V15.” The probe is looking into whether OneVoice, a registered non-profit in the U.S., violated its tax-exempt status by financing V15’s electioneering activities in Israel. Jeremy Bird, who was Obama’s national field director in the 2012 presidential election, has assisted V15 through his consulting firm, 270 Strategies. Among the 45 staffers at 270 Strategies, 16 have worked directly for Obama’s campaigns.

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