Jerusalem: US ‘reassessment’ threat aims to distract attention from Iran nuke deal

Some in Jerusalem viewed White House threats of 'reassessing' ties as a way of putting Israel on the defensive, US House Speaker Boehner to visit Israel.

March 22, 2015 02:25
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)

Jerusalem is concerned that Washington’s threat to reassess US policy toward the Middle East diplomatic process is an effort to deflect attention from the Iranian nuclear negotiations as they approach a conclusion, diplomatic sources said Saturday.

Despite a congratulatory phone call from US President Barack Obama to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday night, and Netanyahu clarifying in several US media interviews since his reelection on Tuesday that he remains committed to the two-state solution, Washington continued to threaten to “reassess” its position on the Mideast diplomatic process over the weekend, even as it continued to pledge continued security support for Israel.

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Some in Jerusalem viewed this as a way of putting Israel on the defensive, and perhaps blunting Netanyahu’s criticism of a possible deal with Iran.

Netanyahu’s comment on Monday, the day before the election, that a Palestinian state would not emerge as long as he is prime minister, as well as his Election Day encouragement to his supporters to go to the polls ostensibly because Arab voters were voting en masse, triggered fierce criticism in Washington.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at his daily press briefing on Friday  that if Israel was no longer committed to a two-state solution then that would impact on US policy decisions at the UN, a hint that the US may not protect Israel down the line from what Jerusalem views as problematic UN Security Council resolutions calling for two states.  Any re-evaluation of policy, Earnest stressed, would “not include a reassessment of our strong and close security cooperation with Israel,” which he said “will endure.”

Obama, in his first public comments on the election in an interview with the Huffington Post on Friday said of Netanyahu's comment regarding a Palestinian state that “We take him at his word when he said that it 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.”

Regarding Netanyahu's comment about the Arab voters, Obama said that in his conversation with the prime minister “we indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions. “

Obama said 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 name of democracy in the country."

Earnest said that if Israel were no longer committed to a two-state solution, this would impact US policy decisions at the UN. This was a clear hint that the US may not protect Israel down the line from what Jerusalem views as problematic UN Security Council resolutions calling for two states. Any re-evaluation of policy, Earnest stressed, would “not include a reassessment of our strong and close security cooperation with Israel,” which he said “will endure.”

“But, now that our closest ally in the region, and one of the two parties who would be responsible for negotiating a two-state solution, has withdrawn from their commitments to that ideal, it means that we need to rethink the kinds of policy decisions that we’re going to have to make going forward,” he said.

Asked why the White House does not believe Netanyahu when he said in post-election interviews that he was still committed to a two-state solution, Earnest said because “he said earlier this week that he wasn’t.” The spokesman did not give a direct reply when reminded that Obama has reversed himself on policy matters over the years.

While the PMO did not issue a read-out of the call from the president, which came four days earlier than it did in 2013, when Obama waited six days to congratulate Netanyahu, the White House did issue a statement that said Obama “emphasized the importance the United States places on our close military, intelligence and security cooperation with Israel, which reflects the deep and abiding partnership between both countries.”

The statement said the two men agreed to continue consultations on a range of regional issues, “including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and that Obama reaffirmed America’s “long-standing commitment to a two-state solution that results in a secure Israel alongside a sovereign and viable Palestine.”

The statement said that, regarding Iran, Obama reiterated that Washington is focused on “reaching a comprehensive deal with Iran that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and verifiably assures the international community of the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.”

In a related development, Netanyahu on Saturday gave his full backing to Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, amid whispers in Washington that replacing Dermer may be necessary to restore a better working relationship with the Obama administration.

A statement put out Saturday by the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu made clear at the AIPAC conference earlier in March that he “couldn’t be prouder to have Ron Dermer representing Israel in Washington.”

“That is as true today as it was then,” the statement read. “The prime minister has full confidence in Ambassador Dermer, whose service to the people and State of Israel continue to reflect his extraordinary dedication, professionalism, and passion.”

The statement came after Earnest was asked at his daily briefing whether work to repair the relationship could take place with Dermer as ambassador.

Earnest said the decision about ambassadorial appointments “is the responsibility of the leaders of the country. And so, obviously, Prime Minister Netanyahu will decide who is the person who is best positioned to represent his country in the United States.”

Last week, The New York Times quoted administration officials as saying it would “improve the atmosphere” if Dermer stepped down, though it would not change fundamental policy differences between Washington and Jerusalem.

Dermer, viewed by some administration officials since his appointment in September 2013 as too close to the Republicans, sparked anger in the White House because it perceived him as being responsible for working with House Speaker John Boehner to invite Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran.

Boehner, meanwhile, is expected to visit Israel before the end of the month. One government official, asked about the wisdom of Boehner – a stalwart Obama political adversary – coming now at a point of great friction between Netanyahu and Obama, said “If the speaker of the House of Representatives wants to come to Israel, he is a welcome guest.”

Earnest was asked about the Boehner visit in his press briefing and said that it is “certainly not uncommon for members of Congress in both parties to travel to Israel,” adding that “it doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody here.”

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