Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Anti-Netanyahu remark splashes back on Obama

Anti-Netanyahu remark splashes back on Obama

The Israeli prime minister is having the last laugh as the U.S. president is forced into damage control

By Alex Spillius and Adrian Blomfield And Jon Swaine, Daily Telegraph

Even before the latest accidental encounter between global leaders and an open microphone, we knew Benjamin Netanyahu was not popular among his peers.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, let it be known earlier this year that she had chastised the Israeli prime minister for his weak commitment to peace in the Middle East.

Bill Clinton said Netanyahu's rightwing coalition was undermining the peace process that he had come so close to securing as U.S. president in 2000.

And even before U.S. President Barack Obama's unwitting confession to French President Nicolas Sarkozy last week that he rued the daily necessity of dealing with Netanyahu, we knew that relations between the White House and the Israeli prime minister's office were distinctly frosty.

The conversation went like this: "I cannot bear him, he's a liar," Sarkozy said of Netanyahu.

Damaging his pro-Israel credentials, the U.S. president did not demur.

Instead he exacerbated his sin in the eyes of pro-Israeli Americans by retorting: "You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day."

Critics of Netanyahu will see the conversation as evidence of the true way in which he is regarded in the West, with many suspecting that greater blame for the stalemate in the peace process is attributed to Netanyahu than the Palestinians.

But the exchange looks to damage Obama far more than Netanyahu as it was gleefully seized on by Republicans.

"Israel is under more pressure and probably in more danger than they've been since the '67 war and that kind of comment is not only not helpful, but indicative of some of the policies towards Israel that this administration has been part of," John McCain, the Republican senator for Arizona, told Fox News.

Under pressure from Republicans and supporters of Israel in his own party, Obama has tried to strike a more conciliatory note, notably by his vocal opposition to Palestinian attempts to win statehood at the United Nations.

But his change of tone has largely been seen as born of domestic necessity and it is widely believed that he remains irritated by Netanyahu's obduracy over Jewish settlement building, an issue that has prevented the resumption of Middle East peace talks.

But from Netanyahu's viewpoint, it has been strictly business.

During his first stint as prime minister, he was forced by Clinton to accept the Wye River agreement - then seen as a significant step toward peace - and so contributed to his defeat in 1999 as Likud supporters rejected the concessions.

Upon taking office again in late 2008, Netanyahu seems to have determined that another Democratic president would not succeed in appealing over his head to his electorate.

When Obama demanded Israel stop building settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, Netanyahu refused, agreeing eventually to a partial 10-month moratorium.

The Israelis then chose to announce plans to build 1,600 settler homes while Joe Biden, the U.S. vice-president and a staunch supporter of Israel during his long Senate career, was visiting Israel.

Then Netanyahu had the nerve to contradict the leader of the free world in his own home. At a White House photo opportunity in May, he said Obama's call for a peace deal based on Israel's pre-1967 war borders was "indefensible," even though it had simply echoed every negotiating attempt for the past 20 years.

Obama simply sat there, apparently summoning every ounce of his famous self-control not to retaliate.

The truth is, Netanyahu can be as rude as he likes to Obama. He knows that Israeli public opinion has shifted to the right sufficiently since his first premiership to support his bold approach. He now knows that the young man in the White House does not relish a fight.

And with his acute insight into America's domestic politics, he knows that the Republicans who recaptured Congress a year ago will offer him their unyielding support.

Mitt Romney, the Republican most likely to face Obama in the 2012 election, is already deploying a stock phrase that the president is "throwing Israel under the bus."

Netanyahu knows that in election season Obama will not dare expose himself to charges that he is not fully behind Israel.

Despite the insults inadvertently cast his way, it is the Israeli prime minister who is having the last laugh.

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