x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Week in review: Israelis rattled by Obama

Israeli officials, long accustomed to their American counterparts saying one thing in public and the opposite in private, are struggling to adapt to a US administration that means what it says. After US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said bluntly and unequivocally that the Obama administration "wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,' Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained, "What the hell do they want from me?"

Israeli officials, long accustomed to their American counterparts saying one thing in public but the opposite in private, are struggling to adapt to a US administration that means what it says. Last week, shortly after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said bluntly and unequivocally that the Obama administration "wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,' Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a confidant. Referring to Mrs Clinton's call for a settlement freeze, Mr Netanyahu complained, "What the hell do they want from me?" according to his associate, who added, "I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [US] congressional delegations [visiting Israel]." Laura Rozen reported: "According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from the Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him [during a congressional recess]. To Netanyahu's dismay, Obama doesn't appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was." In Haaretz, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff said: "Israeli-American relations are entering their most serious tailspin in a decade - the decade since Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister. "Bad news from Washington is plaguing the prime minister one piece after another. Immediately after the report that Obama was considering rescinding the United States' almost automatic support for Israel in the United Nations, Obama said the time had come to be honest with Israel. The United States' attitude to Israel so far, he said, had often damaged the interests of both countries. There's no doubt about it: Obama plans to teach Netanyahu about tough love. "The tensions are not just the outcome of the gaps between the right-wing Israeli government and the Democratic administration in the United States. It's also a question of timing. Obama came to the White House determined to generate profound change in a great many areas. Between his victory in November and his inauguration in January, he had time to plan the implementation of his programmes. "Netanyahu, meanwhile, came out of Israel's February election without a clear mandate to lead, and his government was sworn in at the end of March. Looking back, it seems he was not quite ready for the shock that awaited him in Washington. It turned out that some of the good English-speakers around Netanyahu are wonderfully suited to fruitful dialogue with the Americans, as long as it's with the Bush administration. Honey, they switched the presidents." Oakland Ross, reporting for the Toronto Star, explained that in a briefing on Tuesday it was apparent that Israeli officials were baffled about how they should deal with an administration in Washington that means what it says. "It is true, the official said, that a succession of US administrations has called on Israel to halt expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but he insisted those demands were designed for public consumption. "Privately, he said, the two countries have agreed for years that some new construction could go ahead, provided it met certain conditions worked out informally between the two governments. "Traditionally, the official explained, a 'halt' to new settlement construction meant Israel could go ahead with building, provided such activity took place within existing settlement boundaries, did not include financial incentives for prospective settlers, and did not involve expropriation of private land. "These were the rules worked out privately with Washington, he said, and Israel has abided by them. " 'Israel,' he said, 'has not been hoodwinking anyone.' "In the past, rather than condemn Israel for such activity, Washington would instead react with muted dissent, using vapid adjectives such as 'unhelpful' to describe the ongoing settlement construction. "Such words, the official said, were actually meant to signal Washington's acceptance of Israel's actions, not its disapproval. "Now, he complained, the administration of President Barack Obama is abandoning such unwritten 'understandings' by insisting its demand for a halt to new construction means exactly what it says - no new construction. "In other words, 'no' no longer means 'yes'." Ministers from the Likud-led coalition government along with members of the Israeli parliament said on Tuesday that challenges to Mr Netanyahu's policies coming from Washington amounted to interference in Israeli politics, The Jerusalem Post reported. Officials from the opposition Kadima party responded to the allegations, the report said: "by disagreeing that the US was meddling but expressing concern that such a perception by the Israeli public would harm their party and end up strengthening the prime minister. They accused Netanyahu's associates of portraying Obama as an enemy of Israel in order to unite the public behind him. "The charges of American interference began April 16 when Yediot Aharonot quoted Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel telling an unnamed Jewish leader: 'In the next four years there is going to be a permanent-status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn't matter to us at all who is prime minister [of Israel].' "Likud Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled said Tuesday that the statement was inappropriate and was just one of many examples of American interference in Israeli politics since Netanyahu's election in February." The portrayal of Mr Obama as an opponent of Israel escalated even further on Wednesday when activists supporting the settler movement gathered outside the US consulate in Jerusalem. Members of the Knesset addressed the crowd, largely made up of native-English speaking Israelis, Haaretz reported. " 'I'm here to tell Obama that Eretz Yisrael ["Greater Israel"] belongs to the Jewish people,' said Scottish-born Edith Ognall, who drove to the capital from her hometown of Netanya to attend the event. 'What right does anybody have to tell us to stop building in the land that was given to us by God? I'm not going to stand by and let Obama, or anybody else, tell me where I can live and where I can't live.' "Nadia Matar, the Belgian-born co-chair of Women in Green, which organized the event, made a point of repeatedly mentioning Obama' middle name, Hussein, because 'we have to remind ourselves that he received an Islamic education in Indonesia.' " 'We are connected to our land like a mother is connected to her children,' the well-known activist told reporters. 'And I want to warn you: Don't mess with a Jewish mother who feels her children or her homeland are in danger. Every part and parcel and hilltop and stone in the Land of Israel is like one of our children. And we're going to protect it like lionesses.' " Posters portraying Mr Obama wearing a kaffiyeh, with the slogan "Barak [sic] Hussein Obama - Anti-Semitic Jew-Hater" in English and Hebrew are set to be put up across Israel by the far-right Jewish National Front.

pwoodward@thenational.ae