Last week, the Obama administration was doing a lot of throat-clearing about the need to reevaluate relations with Israel after Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection. Since then, Netanyahu has desperately tried to walk back as many of the offensive and impolitic things he said in the 24 hours before the election. As The Washington Post’s Fred Barbash and Brian Murphy note, however, the Obama administration appears to be unmoved:
On Monday, the White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, reinforced the predictions that the Obama administration could be making recalculations in its dealings with Netanyahu.
“We cannot simply pretend that these comments were never made,” McDonough said.
In a speech to J Street, a Washington-based Israel advocacy group that is critical of Netanyahu, McDonough said Israel faced “total isolation” from the international community if it refuses to consider ending an “occupation that has lasted more than 50 years” in Palestinian lands.
The administration’s tone has been remarkably inflexible despite Netanyahu’s post-election efforts at a walk back. What gives?
A Netanyahu aide suggested earlier this week that the real source of tension was disagreement over the Iran nuclear negotiations. Given Obama’s own skepticism about the prospects of a deal, and Netanyahu’s little-noticed concession that a deal in which Iran still has centrifuges might be acceptable, this sounded dubious.
Well, the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous has one hell of a story that does provide something of an explanation for the White House’s fury at Netanyahu:
Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks. …
The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.
“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.
That, however, is not the most jaw-dropping part of Entous’s story. No, that prize goes to this senior administration official quote:
“People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.” (emphasis added)
Oh, man, there’s a lot to unpack here.
First of all: What exactly did the Israelis tell members of Congress that the administration did not want told? The executive branch conducts negotiations with foreign governments, full stop. The incentive to keep secret negotiating positions that are still in play makes tactical sense. That said, on big-ticket issues like this one, there’s usually some briefing of key members of Congress – even members of the opposition party – to keep them in the loop. Either the Obama administration has been chary with information to Congress, or the Israelis blabbed about something super-extra-secret.
Second, I have never seen a senior administration quote like that one directed against an ally. There is precedent for a souring of a bilateral relationship because of craven campaign rhetoric. The George W. Bush-Gerhard Schröder relationship was never the same after Schröder won reelection in 2002 on an anti-Iraq War platform. But to my knowledge the Bush administration never claimed that the effect would outlast their administration. Either a senior administration official has gone way off-script or there’s something else going on that hasn’t been made public yet.
Third, it will be interesting to see how this story lands in Congress. Entous also reported that Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer’s efforts to woo Democratic members of Congress have proven to be an unmitigated disaster, leaving Netanyahu supporters short of a veto-proof coalition (though how much this is due to Sen. Tom Cotton is an unexplored question). Unless the White House starts sharing its reasons for pique with its supporters in the legislature, however, rhetoric like this is going to put a lot Democrats in a tough spot.
Finally, how is Hillary Rodham Clinton going to react to that quote? Make no mistake, that was the implication: If Clinton becomes president in 2017, then Netanyahu will face a long season of chilly relations. Is that actually how Clinton and her Middle East advisers think?
To be sure, as the BBC’s Kim Ghattas notes, the Clintons have a long and unpleasant history with Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, Clinton has also been more hawkish than Obama on the Iran negotiations. As someone who will likely be triangulating between Republicans and the Obama administration, this puts her in a political bind as well – unless there’s information about Israeli moves that has yet to come to light.
I don’t know where this is going, and I don’t know if that senior administration official is on script or off script. But either way, it’s disturbing. Either the White House is so pissed off that they’re issuing threats like this to an ally through the media, or Netanyahu did something even more subversive to U.S. interests than what is currently known.