JERUSALEM — A pair of testy public exchanges this week appear to have undone whatever good will was created between the Israeli and U.S. governments during a high-profile visit by President Barack Obama early this year.
Tensions burst into the open during a swing through the region by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In an interview broadcast on both Israeli and Palestinian TV, Kerry questioned Israel’s seriousness about peace with the Palestinians. Hours later Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired back, vowing not to cave into concessions to the Palestinians — and also saying he “utterly rejects” an emerging nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.
The rancor signals a tough road ahead for the twin American goals of finding a diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear program and forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And it raises the specter of a return to the uncomfortable relationship that has often characterized dealings between Obama and Netanyahu.
Israeli news reports describe Netanyahu as being in “shock” over the possible Iranian compromise. Netanyahu, who sees Iran as an arch-enemy, has vowed to do anything, including a military strike, to prevent Iran from reaching weapons capability.
“If there were a synoptic map for diplomatic storms, the National Weather Service would be putting out a hurricane warning right now,” diplomatic correspondent Chemi Shalev wrote on the website of the newspaper Haaretz. “And given that the turbulence is being caused by an issue long deemed to be critical to Israel’s very existence, we may actually be facing a rare Category 5 flare up, a ‘superstorm’ of U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Obama and Netanyahu took office just months apart in 2009, but seemed to have little in common. At joint appearances they appeared uncomfortable and even occasionally sparred. In one famous instance, Netanyahu lectured Obama on the pitfalls of Mideast peacemaking in front of the TV cameras at a White House meeting.
There has been constant friction over Netanyahu’s insistence on continuing to settle Jews on occupied land even as he negotiates with Palestinians.
In surprisingly blunt comments, Kerry told Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Thursday that Israel faced the possibility of international isolation and renewed violence with the Palestinians if peace efforts failed. He also said the continued settlement construction raised questions about Israel’s commitment to peace.
“How can you say, ‘We’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?'” Kerry said. “It sends a message that somehow perhaps you’re not really serious.”
Netanyahu responded the next morning ahead of a meeting with Kerry. “No amount of pressure will make me or the government of Israel compromise on the basic security and national interests of the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu also slammed the emerging agreement with Iran. “Iran got the deal of the century, and the international community got a bad deal.”