White House to Netanyahu: You Created the Crisis, You Fix It

Though the administration won't say so directly, U.S. officials hint replacing Ambassador Ron Dermer is key to mending ties.

Barak Ravid
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File photo: Netanyahu greets people on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2011, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress.Credit: AP
Barak Ravid

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress is over and the applause has faded, but the crisis in relations between Israel and the United States is still on, perhaps even more so than before.

Senior U.S. officials made clear after the speech that the White House sees Netanyahu as the one who created the current crisis, and so if he is reelected, the responsibility for repairing the breach will be his.

During his address to the convention of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on Monday, as well as during his speech to the joint session of Congress, Netanyahu tried to send signals of calm and reconciliation in U.S. President Barack Obama’s direction. Nevertheless, senior White House officials considered the attempts too little, too late. Obama’s associates seem to have identified a Netanyahu behavior pattern – first he attacks and creates a crisis, then he rolls his eyes and praises Obama publicly.

Over the past six years, there have been more than a few ups and downs in the Netanyahu-Obama relationship – tensions, crises, public recriminations and wrangling before the cameras. Senior U.S. officials say that to date, ongoing relations between the two countries continue to function despite these strains. But this time, they stressed, there was the feeling that Netanyahu was using these differences – in fact, highlighting and intensifying them – for his own political needs.

“Historians can probably find examples of times when there were similar crises in the U.S.-Israel relations in the past,” said a senior U.S. official. “In the last six years we had big differences over the peace process and on other issues, but the situation now is extremely difficult and feels more politically charged than ever before.”

The White House is following the polls in Israel, but is avoiding any attempt to influence or predict the results. Senior American officials admit that one reason is that they don’t really understand the political dynamics of the Israeli electorate. It’s safe to assume that the White House will shed no tears if Netanyahu is defeated, but the president’s advisers understand that there is at least a 50 percent chance that Netanyahu will occupy the Prime Minister’s Office during the last two years of Obama’s term as well.

Senior administration officials said the White House is not planning any retaliation against Netanyahu, nor is it considering ways to punish him if he wins the election. Nevertheless, the wounds caused by the premier’s address to Congress are far from being healed, and Netanyahu will have to make great efforts to restore good relations with the Obama administration.

“We are not the ones who created this crisis,” said a senior administration official. “President Obama has another two years in office and we wish to go back to a reality where you can work together despite the differences. The prime minister of Israel is the one who needs to find a way to fix this.”

Dermer the instigator

Although White House officials don’t say so explicitly, they seem to imply that one way to repair the relations between Netanyahu and Obama would be to replace Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer. The latter is seen as an instigator who concocted Netanyahu’s Congress speech behind Obama’s back with John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu praised Dermer for standing firm and taking the heat in Washington. If Netanyahu wins the election and continues to back Dermer, the ambassador will find himself isolated in the American capital. As long as Obama is in the White House, nobody in the administration will work with him.

If Netanyahu wishes to work with the White House, he’ll have no choice but to replace his protégé Dermer, who is seen by the Obama administration as persona non grata, even if they don’t say so publicly.

“The prime minister, who is elected, is the one who decides who is the Israeli ambassador to Washington. It is clear to us that Dermer prioritized his relations with Congress over his relations with the administration,” an American official said.

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, who is close to the Obama administration, wrote in an article on Politico Magazine on Tuesday that “Dermer’s ability to function as the Israeli ambassador is now severely weakened, perhaps even fatally so.”

In acting more as Netanyahu’s personal envoy than Israel’s ambassador, Dermer “has lost touch with a large segment of Americans – including a majority of the Jewish community that votes for the Democrats. Ambassadors are an expendable lot – I know from experience – and Dermer has now outlived his usefulness as Israel’s envoy to the United States,” Kurtzer wrote.

In the days before Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, senior White House officials gave leading congress members, especially Democrats, detailed briefings about the negotiations with Iran. However, Obama’s advisers didn’t say anything about the lawmakers boycotting the speech or attending it.

“We didn’t want to create a dynamic that will make people think we want them to boycott the speech,” an official said.

The White House decided to keep a low profile and not to attribute too much importance to Netanyahu’s address. During the speech, Obama himself held a video conference with some European leaders about Ukraine. The president’s first reaction after being briefed on the speech’s content was also intended to downplay its importance.

In the last 18 months, Obama has met and spoken to Netanyahu countless times and always heard from him almost the same things about the attempt to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran, American officials say.

Obama was not convinced then, nor was he convinced after the speech to Congress. “There was no new idea or proposal in the speech that we could use in the talks with Iran,” an official said.

The White House’s main problem with Netanyahu’s speech, apart from the political tension it caused, is that it could enable the Iranians to blame the United States should the talks fail.

“If there’s no deal it’s important for us to make clear that it’s Iran’s fault,” the official said. “We don’t want it to be perceived that Congress prevented a deal. We need to negotiate until the end to try and get a deal. But if we can’t get a deal, we should let Iran be the one who says no. In this case – new sanctions will always be a possibility.”

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