Obama Gets Tough With Netanyahu, for Gaza And/or Kerry

Remember: nothing riles the White House more than the appearance that Israel is supplying ammo to Obama’s political enemies, as it did on Sunday.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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President Barack Obama, June 4, 2014.
President Barack Obama, June 4, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Barack Obama may have stopped short of reading the riot act to Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, but the White House version of the two leaders’ phone conversation left no room for doubt: The U.S. President was ratcheting up the rhetoric and the pressure on Israel to end the fighting in Gaza, and to end it now.

Both the tone and the content of the official readout of the phone call conveyed a sense of assertiveness and urgency that was significantly blunter than the language used by Obama since the start of the Gaza campaign. The immediate assumption was that the White House was venting its anger at the full frontal assault on Secretary of State John Kerry that was launched after the Israeli cabinet’s rejection of his cease-fire proposals on Friday and reached fever pitch in Sunday’s Israeli media reports. A second explanation, alternative or supplementary, was that Obama was expressing his own sense of anguish and distress with the scenes of death and destruction in Gaza that were exposed for the world to see during Friday’s 12-hour cease-fire.

The specific words chosen by the White House aides in formulating the official readout were all taken from the dictionary of diplomatic jargon, but they were unequivocal nonetheless. “Building on Secretary Kerry’s efforts” (but turbocharging them) “the President made clear” (this was not a request) “the strategic imperative” (this is more important than anything else for me now, so it should be for you too) “of instituting an immediate, unconditional (no ifs, buts or maybes) humanitarian ceasefire that ends hostilities now (and not later) and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 ceasefire agreement.”

Though there were a few silver linings for Israel in the president’s message – including Obama’s reaffirmation of U.S. support for the Egyptian cease-fire proposals and his explicit mention of the Palestinian Authority – its overall thrust probably cast a pall over what had already been a dark and cloudy day. Although Obama reiterated his support for Israel’s right to defend itself, he withdrew his previously specific backing for Israel’s military operations; though he mentioned the need for any long lasting cease fire arrangement to address Israel’s security, his balance now seemed to be tilting towards alleviating the Palestinian plight; and while he mentioned the Hamas disarmament and Gaza demilitarization that Netanyahu had been tirelessly touting on Sunday’s talk shows, Obama made clear that these are issues that should be addressed in the quite-distant-future, as part of a “lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, which has never seemed farther away.

Whether by coincidence or design, the readout of the Obama-Netanyahu call came minutes after a “senior U.S. official” had finished expressing the State Department’s fury over the “offensive” and “gratuitous” attacks on Kerry, including an editorial that accused him of “betrayal,” no less. Given Obama’s increasingly negative gut reaction to the civilian suffering in Gaza and what some U.S. officials are describing as “Israeli overkill”, it’s quite possible that his conversation with Netanyahu would have been exactly the same even if there had been no anti-Kerry campaign.

But one should never forget that that the most toxic and explosive catalyst of tension and even enmity between the White House and Jerusalem ever since Obama was first elected to office has been the recurring perception in Washington that the Netanyahu is in cahoots with Obama’s political enemies in America, that he uses them to shoot down unwanted Administration policies and then aids and abets them in return in their scorched earth campaigns against the president.

It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that when the fires ignited in Jerusalem against Kerry’s cease-fire diplomacy began to spread to right wing diatribes against Obama in America, the President connected the dots, saw red and rightly or wrongly suspected that Netanyahu was once again supplying ammunition for Obama’s conservative and Republican nemeses.

In which case, the brief honeymoon that has characterized the relations between Obama and Netanyahu since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8 may have come to an abrupt end on Sunday, in a transatlantic phone call that signaled a return to business as usual, bitter as before.

The first sign of the change came a few short hours later, in the presidential statement issued by the UN Security Council that called also called for an immediate cease fire, using the same exact words that Obama had employed in his conversation with Netanyahu.

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