The crisis between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that broke out anew after the Israeli election, worsens from day to day. At a press conference on Tuesday Obama said that there is "real policy difference" between himself and Netanyahu when it comes to the need to establish a Palestinian state. This dispute, Obama added, will have ramifications for U.S. policy regarding the Middle East peace process.
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"The issue is not a matter of [personal] relations but a substantive challenge. We believe two states are the best way to preserve Israel's security and that continues to be our view. Netanyahu has a different approach," the U.S. president said at the White House, where he was hosting the Afghan president. "This is a matter of figuring out how we get through a knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and the region," he added.
A day before Israel's March 17 general election Netanyahu declared that under his watch, a Palestinian state would not be established, sparking widespread criticism from the White House.
In the week since the election, not a day has gone by without critical comments from senior Washington officials against the position that Netanyahu expressed during his campaign – not only his declarations against the establishment of a Palestinian state, but also his "warnings" against the rising voter turnout in the Arab sector on Election Day.
“We can't pretend there’s a possibility of something that is not there or premise U.S. diplomacy on something everyone knows isn't going to happen,” Obama said, referring to efforts to convince Netanyahu to pursue a two-state solution.
“Up until this year the premise has been [that] the possibility of two states living side by side in peace and security could marginalize more extreme elements, bring together folks at the center with some common sense, and we could resolve what has been a vexing issue and one that is ultimately a threat to Israel as well,” Obama said.
“And that possibility seems very dim, and that may trigger then reactions by the Palestinians that in turn elicits counter reactions by the Israelis and that could end up leading to a downward spiral for relations that will be dangerous for everybody and bad for everybody."
On Monday night, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker harshly criticized Netanyahu at the J Street conference in Washington. Baker acknowledged his disappointment with "the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace," saying that the chances for a two-state solution diminished since Netanyahu's reelection last week.
Baker further slammed Netanyahu's "diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship," saying that the prime minister's "actions have not matched his rhetoric," according to Politico.
Earlier in the day, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough offered a similar rebuke of Netanyahu – specifically the prime minister's claims that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch.
“We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made,” McDonough told the conference.
Despite Netanyahu's efforts to clarify his remarks, the White House does not appear convinced. At the press conference Tuesday, Obama stated that both he and the Israeli electorate took Netanyahu at his word for the things he said during the campaign. He added that even when Netanyahu tried to clarify that he did not mean no Palestinian state would "ever" be established, he placed conditions that the Palestinians couldn't meet in the foreseeable future.
Obama was asked if he would consider U.S. support for a UN Security Council resolution regarding a Palestinian state, but emphasized that the U.S. will reevaluate its position on the peace process for the coming years only after the new Israeli government is established. He did say that relations with Israel will not be reevaluated and military, defense and intelligence aid to Israel would continue uninterrupted.
Netanyahu and his associates believe the White House attack over the past week has not been driven by desire to advance the peace process but is connected to negotiations with Iran for a nuclear agreement, talks which are reaching a critical junction this week. Senior Israeli officials emphasize that Netanyahu is convinced Obama is trying to neutralize his influence in Congress on the Iranian issue by attacking him on the Palestinian issue.