Last week, the NY Times referred to the decision as "a slap in the face" of the United States. One Sunday, Friedman used an even harsher tone, saying that Biden should have gotten right back on Air Force Two and left the following note behind: “Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you’re serious. We need to focus on building our country.”
The developing crisis between Israel and the United States refused to die down over the weekend. It began on Friday after Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren was reprimanded by US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, continued with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's scolding phone call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and worsened with a series of remarks by Clinton and other administration officials.
It appears that the particularly tough stand was generated during US President Barack Obama's weekly meeting with Clinton at the White House on Thursday afternoon, during which the two discussed the heavy sense of insult felt by the Americans in light of the Israeli move. On Friday, the Americans did not act as a major power running the world, but as an injured bull.
Netanyahu arriving at cabinet meeting, Sunday. Lost his credibility (Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Senior administration officials are openly accusing Israel of damaging the relations and are expressing their doubt over Netanyahu's commitment to the two-state vision. The administration refuses to accept the prime minister's apology over the timing of the decision, clarifying that the timing is not the only problematic thing – but the actual decision.
According to a State Department official, the US views the announcement as a deep negative symbol of the Israeli approach towards the bilateral relations, which contradicts the spirit of the vice president's trip. The official added that the Israeli announcement undermined the trust in the peace process and the American interests.
A sign of the tension could be seen in Friday's State Department press brieifing, which spokesman Philip J. Crowley dedicated to the reprimanding talk between Clinton and Netanyahu, during which he avoided the standard procedure of calling a foreign leader by his full name and referred to him as "Bibi Netanyahu" instead.
He explained that during the 45-minute conversation, Clinton rebuked Netanyahu, expressed Obama's feeling of betrayal and insult, which she said was shared by the entire administration, and demanded that the prime minister engage in a number of trust-building measures in order to help calm things down and save the indirect peace talks with the Palestinians.
One of the reporters asked Crowley – a diplomat who usually chooses his words carefully – whether he had used the word "Bibi" intentionally. "That was my choice of words," the spokesman replied without blinking.
Obama, Netanyahu not talking
During her conversation with Netanyahu, Clinton said she could not understand why Israel acted the way it did in light of the strong American commitment to Israel's security. She told the prime minister that he must demonstrate his commitment to Israel's relations with the US and the peace process with actions, rather than just words.
And what does Clinton think about this commitment? In an interview to CNN, the secretary of state clarified that the US supports the two-state solution, "which the prime minister himself says he supports," although she did not appear to believe it.
Despite the crisis, Clinton stressed that the relationship between the two countries was still pretty good, with deep coordination on both the diplomatic and political level. She explained that the crisis was between the leaders, not between the countries. "Our relationship is durable. It's strong. It's rooted in common values," she said.
But on the personal level there is a problem. Obama and Netanyahu don't like each other. After Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, who were able to call US President George W. Bush at almost any hour of the day, Netanyahu and Obama don't even talk on the phone.
Netanyahu, who the White House has been suspecting since the beginning of his term, has completely lost his credibility in the eyes of the Obama administration, although it should be noted that the US president has no intimate relations with any other foreign leader.
The Washington Post last week discussed Obama's lack of chemistry with other world leaders, saying that compared to Bush – who was hated by most of the people of the world but had excellent personal relations with most of their leaders – Obama is popular among the residents but has failed to create any special relationships with their leaders.
Obama. Lack of chemistry with world leaders (Photo: Pete Souza, White House)
Netanyahu is expected to arrive in Washington next week for an AIPAC meeting while Obama will be travelling to Indonesia and Australia. The two leaders are scheduled to meet when the prime minister returns to the American capital in about a month for the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by the US president.
Gibbs, Axelrod to convey calming messages
Will the crisis between the leaders interfere with the American efforts on the Iranian issue? It's hard to believe. Iran and its nuclear program is the most important diplomatic test in Obama's career.
The Americans view Iran as a global problem directly threatening American interests. The Americans will continue sending officials to Israel and hosting Israeli officials in Washington in order to maintain the coordination on this matter.
In any event, the peak of the crisis appears to be over. America will be dealing intensively this week with the healthcare reform, Obama will leave for Indonesia and Clinton will travel to Moscow.
Sources in Washington say the administration will now try to lower the flames, stop the insults and manage the crisis. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and senior advisor David Axelrod will be tasked with conveying calming messages on leading US television networks.
Meanwhile, Friedman wrote in his column, "the last thing the president needs, at a time when he is facing down Iran and China — not to mention Congress — is to look like America’s most dependent ally can push him around.
"Israel needs a wake-up call. Continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, and even housing in disputed east Jerusalem, is sheer madness," he added.
He explained to his readers who the construction was an obstacle to any future peace agreement, specifically in the upcoming indirect talks.
"Only a right-wing prime minister, like Netanyahu, can make a deal over the West Bank; Netanyahu’s actual policies on the ground there have helped Palestinians grow their economy and put in place their own rebuilt security force, which is working with the Israeli Army to prevent terrorism; Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are as genuine and serious about working toward a solution as any Israel can hope to find; Hamas has halted its attacks on Israel from Gaza; with the Sunni Arabs obsessed over the Iran threat, their willingness to work with Israel has never been higher, and the best way to isolate Iran is to take the Palestinian conflict card out of Tehran’s hand.
"In sum, there may be a real opportunity here — if Netanyahu chooses to seize it. The Israeli leader needs to make up his mind whether he wants to make history or once again be a footnote to it" (click here to read the full article).