Netanyahu Aides Cite Iran as Source of U.S. Tensions


Netanyahu Aides Cite Iran as Source of U.S. Tensions
MARCH 22, 2015/ the New York Times

 JERUSALEM — Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, called Sunday for reconciliation and healing after a divisive election campaign that ended in a victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but inflamed domestic discord and worsened already rancorous relations between Mr. Netanyahu and the Obama administration.

“We have been through a stormy and passionate election period — this is the time to begin a process of mending and healing in Israeli society,” Mr. Rivlin said, adding, “While the government that will be formed will have been elected by a majority of Israel’s citizens, it must provide an answer to the needs of all the citizens of Israel — Jews, Arabs, left, right, north, south, center and the periphery.”

Yet in what appeared to be an effort to counter President Obama’s criticism of Mr. Netanyahu’s contentious remarks on a Palestinian state and an Election Day warning about too many Arab voters, Netanyahu loyalists said that the true cause of the tensions with Washington was Israel’s strong opposition to a nuclear accord with Iran.

Mr. Rivlin, whose post is largely ceremonial, made his remarks as he began consultations with representatives of parties elected to Parliament to initiate the formal process of building a coalition government. He started with Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, which won 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and is expected to rely primarily on right-wing and Orthodox parties to form a majority government.

Particularly galling for many in Israel and around the world was Mr. Netanyahu’s comment in an Election Day video in which he asserted that Israel’s Arab citizens were streaming to the polling stations “in droves.”

Days earlier, Mr. Netanyahu, in another appeal to right-wing voters, seemed to promise that no Palestinian state would be established under his watch. He appeared to be reneging on a policy speech he made in 2009 endorsing, under certain conditions, the two-state solution, a pillar of American Middle East policy.Despite the prime minister’s postelection attempts to walk back his comments, Mr. Obama vented his ire over them in a videotaped interview with The Huffington Post this weekend. The United States ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Israel Radio on Sunday that Mr. Netanyahu’s apparent change of position, in which he said he opposed a Palestinian state, and his subsequent efforts to insist that his remarks were misinterpreted, has created “a confusing situation that leads to doubt about what Israel’s true policy is.”

Speaking in Hebrew, Mr. Shapiro added, “We have to reassess our outlook on what our standing is regarding the goal of how to progress in the direction of a solution of two states for two peoples; if negotiations are impossible, what other steps are correct.”

But Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, said on Sunday that Mr. Netanyahu “didn’t say what the president and others seem to suggest that he’s saying.”

Mr. Dermer pointed to growing instability in the Middle East and what he described as the alliance between the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, the Islamic militant group, as impediments to the peace process.  Yuval Steinitz, a Likud minister loyal to Mr. Netanyahu, told Israel Radio later on Sunday that the main reason for tensions with Washington was “the strong disagreement we have with the United States over the Iran issue.”  “We cannot accept the idea that the whole world — the Iranians, the Europeans, the Americans — are talking about the nuclear agreement with Iran and we have to sit quietly on the side,” he said.

The dispute over Iran reached a flash point in the days before the Israeli election when Mr. Netanyahu, in defiance of the White House, addressed the Republican-led Congress and warned against an accord that seemed to be taking shape between Tehran and six world powers.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who was a formal adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and spoke to him over the weekend, said that the core of what he described as “cool winds blowing” from Washington was Iran, not the Palestinian issue.

“I don’t see the disagreements over the Palestinians being the basis for the state of relations — it must extend to the fact that they’re about to cut a deal with Tehran and they know that Israel has serious reservations about the substance of that agreement,” Mr. Gold said in a telephone interview. “The issue of Iran is paramount in both Jerusalem and in Washington, and it may affect the tone at present.”

Mr. Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative research group, expressed confidence that relations would soon be repaired, if only because of other regional realities, like threats posed by the Islamic State and instability in Yemen.  “In the past we’ve had similar tensions over aspects of the peace process, and ultimately the region forced us into surmounting our differences and working together as allies,” he said.