WASHINGTON – It was tough not to notice the significant differences between U.S. President Barack Obama’s withering criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Bloomberg interview published on Sunday, and the praise he heaped on the Israeli leader in front of the cameras at the White House a mere 24 hours later.
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Netanyahu was surprised when he landed here Sunday and immediately had to face the headlines about Obama’s comments. That’s not how he expected his U.S. visit to begin. Over the last few days, his advisers have been doing what they can to convey a sense of calm, going as far as to say they were not expecting any U.S. pressure over the Palestinian issue.
All that was missing was someone leaping out from behind a bush and shouting, “You’re on ‘Candid Camera’!” It was lucky for the prime minister that the people behind the cameras at Andrews Air Force Base were employees of Israel’s Government Press Office.
So what happened in the intervening 24 hours that prompted Obama to soften his tone?
One likely explanation is that the interview with Goldberg actually took place on Thursday, before the escalation of the Ukraine crisis. By the time it was published on Sunday, there were thousands of Russian soldiers in the Crimea. If Obama had known the turn events there would take, he might have put off his frontal assault on Netanyahu until later.
But the main reason for the difference in tone is Netanyahu’s response to the Obama interview. The prime minister and his advisers really didn’t like Obama’s comments, to say the least, and there might have been angry messages that made their way to the White House. Obama, who had already gotten what he wanted and sent the message he intended to send to Netanyahu via the interview, figured the time had come to lower the volume and not get into a public confrontation with the Israeli premier in front of the cameras.
But the change in Obama’s comments is one of style more than substance. When the photographers and the reporters left the room, Netanyahu met with the Obama behind the Bloomberg interview. The impression one gets is that Obama’s patience for the exhausting negotiations conducted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over the framework agreement is running out.
The recent Israeli report indicating the largest surge of settlement construction in a decade provides justification for Obama’s comment that settlement expansion has been “aggressive.” Netanyahu knows this is Israel’s Achilles’ heel, but isn’t doing anything about it because he fears the political influence of the settler lobby.
Netanyahu did show some flexibility, but has yet to take the steps that will show the international community and the Palestinians that he is serious. This was hinted at when Obama said in front of the cameras that Netanyahu held productive talks with Kerry on the Palestinian issue. Kerry, who was standing two meters away, bent down to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Apparently thinking that no one could hear him, he said cynically: “Productive?!”