Days after President Barack Obama was quoted as castigating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for ostensibly turning Israel into a pariah nation and threatening its long-term survival, Netanyahu hit back Saturday night, declaring that if he were to capitulate to demands for a retreat to the pre-1967 lines, “we’d get Hamas 400 meters from my house.”
According to a report Tuesday by Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama has begun repeating the mantra that Israel under Netanyahu “doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”
Israelis can and will decide for themselves who best represents their interests, Netanyahu retorted in a Channel 2 interview. Alluding to Obama’s calls for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps, and a halt to building over the pre-67 lines in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said, “When they say, ‘Go back to the ’67 lines,’ I stand against. When they say, ‘Don’t build in Jerusalem,’ I stand against.”
He added: “It’s very easy to capitulate. I could go back to the impossible to defend ’67 lines, and divide Jerusalem, and we’d get Hamas 400 meters from my home.” That would not happen under his leadership, he said.
“It’s easy to do, and they’d applaud,” he went on, presumably referring to the US-led international community. “They’d applaud just like they applauded the parties (in the 2005 Israeli government) that pulled out of Gaza. Those parties got applause, and we got a rain of rockets.”
Netanyahu said that no matter what pressures were applied, “I have to stand up for our vital interests… when speaking in Congress, and at the UN.”
In a newspaper interview on Friday, Netanyahu also pledged not to dismantle any settlements in the next four years if he is reelected prime minister on Tuesday, as polls suggest he will be.
Netanyahu did praise Obama for backing Israel during November’s Operation Pillar of Defense against terror groups in Gaza, and for joining the effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive. His job as prime minister, he told Channel 2, was “to seek cooperation and to stand up for our interests.”
In the TV interview, the prime minister refused to discuss the possible partners in his next coalition, if he is reelected. Speaking at a cultural event series in Beersheba, his No. 2, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, said he wouldn’t rule out any party from joining the Likud-Beytenu coalition. “Anyone who accepts our coalition guidelines can join us,” Liberman said.
Netanyahu dismissed as “nonsense,” a claim by right-wing rival Naftali Bennett that he was seeking to harm and delegitimize Orthodox Israelis. Bennett accused Netanyahu of signing off on an “ugly campaign” against the modern Orthodox. A Likud party statement later described Bennett’s criticisms as “hysterical.”
The key focus of Obama’s reported criticism was Netanyahu’s settlement construction policies, which recently included plans for thousands of homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in response to the Palestinian Authority’s successful gambit to gain nonmember observer state status from the UN in November.
According to Goldberg, the White House has stopped getting in a huff over the settlement moves, wearily regarding the settlement building as Netanyahu’s harmful modus operandi.
“[Obama] told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart,” Goldberg wrote.
“With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation,” Goldberg added. “And if Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah – one that alienates even the affections of the U.S., its last steadfast friend – it won’t survive. Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel’s own behavior poses a long-term one.”
Goldberg added that, as regards Netanyahu’s handling of the Palestinians, “the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.”
Goldberg said John Kerry, Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, wants to try to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but Obama “is thought to be considerably more wary. He views the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as weak, but he has become convinced that Netanyahu is so captive to the settler lobby, and so uninterested in making anything more than the slightest conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian moderates, that an investment of presidential interest in the peace process wouldn’t be a wise use of his time.”
Yet the president believes – and has believed since his time in the Senate – according to Goldberg, that if Israel “doesn’t disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state.”
In Goldberg’s assessment, “the short-term consequences of Obama’s frustration are limited. The US won’t cut off its aid to Israel, and Obama’s effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions will continue whether or not he’s fed up with Netanyahu. But it is in terms of American diplomatic protection – among the Europeans and especially at the UN – that Israel may one day soon notice a significant shift. During November’s vote on Palestine’s status, the U.S. supported Israel and asked its allies to do the same” – without much success. “When such an issue arises again, Israel may find itself even lonelier. It wouldn’t surprise me if the U.S. failed to whip votes the next time, or if the U.S. actually abstained. I wouldn’t be particularly surprised, either, if Obama eventually offered a public vision of what a state of Palestine should look like, and affirmed that it should have its capital in East Jerusalem.”
Goldberg wrote that the president recognizes that “broad territorial compromise by Israel” in the current unstable Middle East is unlikely. “But what Obama wants is recognition by Netanyahu that Israel’s settlement policies are foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution, and he wants Netanyahu to acknowledge that a two-state solution represents the best chance of preserving the country as a Jewish-majority democracy. Obama wants, in other words, for Netanyahu to act in Israel’s best interests. So far, though, there has been no sign that the Israeli government is gaining a better understanding of the world in which it lives.”