March 20, 2015 / 10:24 PM / in 3 years

Netanyahu row casts doubt on Obama pledge to 'have Israel's back'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama, who once famously said he would “always have Israel’s back,” may be rethinking that promise as aides begin weighing options in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election disavowal of a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Nir Elias

Following Obama’s warning that the United States would “reassess” its relationship with Israel, the administration is not only reconsidering the diplomatic cover it has long given Israel at the United Nations but is also looking at a range of other possibilities to put pressure on its historically close ally, U.S. officials said.

Those could include becoming less active in protecting Israel in international forums and finding new ways to reinforce the message of U.S. opposition to Jewish settlement expansion.

As internal discussions proceeded on Friday, the White House appeared in no rush to lower the temperature in the worst U.S.-Israeli crisis in decades, sparked by Netanyahu’s campaign declaration that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

The White House made clear for a second straight day that it had little faith in Netanyahu’s effort to backtrack since winning Tuesday’s election and insist he was in favor of a two-state solution, long a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy.

There was no sign of any imminent move to turn the administration’s heated rhetoric against Netanyahu into a tangible shift in policy.

As a result, some analysts questioned whether Washington was merely posturing to put the Israeli leader on the defensive at a time when an end-of-March deadline looms in U.S.-led nuclear diplomacy with Iran that Netanyahu vehemently opposes.

“The administration is putting everything on the table except security assistance – and this will allow Netanyahu time to walk back his comments more credibly,” said Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “I would also not expect any decisions before the situation with respect to the Iran negotiations becomes clearer.”

U.S. officials privately were mindful of the risk that the diplomatic storm could drive a deeper wedge between the administration and the influential U.S. pro-Israel camp and cause problems for Obama’s fellow Democrats as the 2016 presidential campaign approaches.

One U.S. official voiced skepticism that the administration would shift its stance toward Israel in any substantive way, arguing that despite White House annoyance at Netanyahu, there would likely be too high a domestic political cost to pay for alienating pro-Israel Americans.

“I just don’t believe in the reassessment,” said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of U.S. relations with Israel.

But Dennis Ross, Obama’s former top Middle East adviser, said the White House pressure had other motives as well.

“There’s an effort to apply leverage to the Israelis to get the prime minister to move on some things when he has a new government formed,” Ross said, citing a U.S. wish to see Israel release frozen Palestinian tax funds and take other goodwill gestures.

RECONSIDERING U.S. SHIELD AT UN

Among the most serious risks for Israel would be a shift in Washington’s posture at the United Nations.

The United States has long stood in the way of Palestinian efforts to get a U.N. resolution recognizing its statehood, including threatening to use its veto, and has protected Israel from efforts to isolate it internationally. But European governments incensed by Netanyahu’s campaign comments against Palestinian statehood, could join in another push for such a resolution.

David Makovsky, a former member of Obama’s team in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that collapsed last year, said the question is: “Will the U.S. consider avoiding a veto over the parameters to a final-status deal with the Palestinians?”

“There’s no doubt that this approach will lead to a firestorm between these two governments if they go forward,” said Makovsky, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Another option under consideration cited by a U.S. official could also be controversial. A report from the administration to Congress in coming weeks about U.S. loan guarantees to Israel, including how much is used for settlements, could contain language critical of expanded construction on occupied land in the West Bank.

While the United States is not likely to reverse its opposition to the Palestinians joining the International Criminal Court next month, Washington could become less vocal in criticizing the move. Some U.S. lawmakers already have threatened to push for a cutoff of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes ahead with its threat to seek war crimes charges against Israel for last year’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Other possibilities include Obama’s cutting back on future one-on-one encounters with Netanyahu.

White House officials have left little doubt that Netanyahu’s U.S. ambassador, Ron Dermer, has been largely frozen out by parts of the administration for his role in orchestrating Netanyahu’s speech to Congress this month against Obama’s Iran diplomacy.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Howard Goller

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