"[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will know how to work with [U.S. President Barack] Obama very well while at the same time safeguarding Israel's interests," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who also acts as the Likud party's election campaign chairman, said on Tuesday.
"Netanyahu has the edge over all the other candidates in the diplomatic arena too, not just the security and economic spheres," Sa'ar said. He was responding to harsh comments attributed to the U.S. president by U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in a article published in Bloomberg View on Tuesday.
The famously contentious relationship between Obama and Netanyahu surfaced again, one week before Israelis head to the polls to elect the 19th Knesset, and a week after the controversial nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, in Goldberg's piece, in which he wrote that in the weeks after the U.N. vote to give the Palestinians non-member state status, Obama said privately and repeatedly, "Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”
"With each new settlement announcement, in Obama’s view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation," Goldberg, who is thought to have good access to the White House, wrote.
"When informed about the Israeli decision [to announce construction plans in the E1 zone as a punishment for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' U.N. move], Obama, who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, didn’t even bother getting angry. He told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart.
"The dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is poised to enter a new phase. On matters related to the Palestinians, the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise.
"Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Obama’s nominee to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, is said to be eager to re-energize the Middle East peace process, but Obama — who already has a Nobel Peace Prize — is thought to be considerably more wary. He views the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as weak, but he has become convinced that Netanyahu is so captive to the settler lobby, and so uninterested in making anything more than the slightest conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian moderates, that an investment of presidential interest in the peace process wouldn’t be a wise use of his time.
“Obama, since his time in the Senate, has been consistent in his analysis of Israel’s underlying challenge: If it doesn’t disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state," Goldberg wrote.
The Prime Minister's Office refused comment on Obama's reported statements. A senior minister in the government refered reporters to the Likud campaign office for response. The minister raised concerns that with the reported comments, Obama was interfering in Israeli politics. The minister questioned whether the statements were an accurate reflection of Obama's position, or more a reflection of Jeffrey Goldberg's worldview.
After taking office in 2009, Netanyahu made a major speech, declaring that he was ready to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, ending years of opposition to such a move at a personal and party level. Netanyahu also instituted an unprecendented 10-month settlement freeze to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but the Palestinian Authority, under Mahmoud Abbas, stayed away and demanded a further settlement freeze.
Netanyahu's commitment to this pledge is widely questioned in Obama administration circles.
At a meeting in 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked the Israeli leader to "show me some leg" and explain what concessions he was willing to make to the Palestinians, according to someone present at the meeting.
Netanyahu shooed everyone from the room and talked alone with Clinton, afraid his comments would otherwise leak.
But he never "showed any leg" to the wider world and the Palestinian issue was swiftly shunted down the global agenda after direct peace talks broke down in late 2010 after the Palestinians stayed away from talks and Israel resumed settlement construction.