That’s what White House press secretary Joshua Earnest said the other day in explaining why President Obama was coming down so hard on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for seeming to renege on his 2009 declaration in favor of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Earnest added that every world leader understands the importance of the declarations they make regarding state policy. But what about the repeated statements the supreme leader of Iran makes calling for the end of the Zionist state, or his condemnation of the U.S. as evil? Do those words matter as well?
The same question could be asked about statements President Obama has made, and then backtracked on. One was his statement at the annual AIPAC conference in 2008, when he was first running for president. Then-Sen. Obama received an ovation when he declared, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” Two days later he clarified his remark, explaining that he meant Jerusalem would not be physically divided but would also be the capital of a Palestinian state.
Four years later, Obama pledged that any indication of Syria using chemical weapons in its civil war would cross a red line, calling for U.S. intervention. But he ignored his own commitment on learning less than a year later that Syria had indeed been using chemical weapons against its enemies. That moment signaled to Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region that the U.S. could not be relied on to take military action.
Words, indeed, do matter. The fact that the president, through his spokesman and is own comments, has been selective in pointing a finger of hypocrisy at Netanyahu, refusing to accept his attempts at clarification and apology, is itself an example of double standards. The focus on Israel’s level of commitment to a two-state solution omits the fact that it is the Israelis who have made the offers and compromises for more than two decades of on-again, off-again peace talks. It is the Palestinians who have, in the end and for whatever reason, rejected them all. Not to mention the problematic reality that a resolution of the conflict calls for a Palestinian state that reconciles the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which controls Gaza and is as big a threat to the PA as it is to Israel.
So while it is true that Netanyahu’s pre-election statement was a serious blunder at best and more likely a calculated political effort to secure a Likud victory, it is also true that Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union shares the same belief that Israel lacks a serious partner on the Palestinian side and that without one there is no hope for resolving the conflict at present.
Netanyahu has been criticized widely, and deservedly so, for his mistake. But Obama’s persistence in publicly attacking the prime minister of America’s only democratic ally in the Mideast is an untoward act of revenge, beneath the dignity of his office. He appears to be jeopardizing Israeli security over a personal animus toward Israel’s democratically elected leader.
Surely one underlying reason for this anger is the different positions of Obama and Netanyahu on the all-important effort to ensure that Iran does not become a nuclear threat to the West in general and Israel in particular. It was Netanyahu who spoke out against the threat years before the U.S. focused on it, and it was Netanyahu who advocated economic sanctions when the administration resisted. Now the key difference is that the U.S. talks about preventing Iran from having the bomb, while Jerusalem seeks to keep Iran from reaching a nuclear threshold and the ability to quickly produce a bomb.
Throughout this long debate over the best way to proceed, both Obama and Netanyahu have stated that no deal with Iran is better than a bad deal. Now, though, it seems clear that the U.S. very much wants a deal, convinced that through close monitoring and other means, Iran will comply. Netanyahu, for the reasons he stated clearly and emphatically in his speech to Congress, insists that the U.S. and its partners are about to sign on to “a very bad deal.”
It’s an honest difference that surely should have been dealt with more effectively in private than in public. Going forward, though, as Netanyahu puts together a ruling coalition and another deadline on the Iran talks nears, it is time for the president and the prime minister to put aside their personal differences and work together for the safety and security of their nations. There is too much at stake for them to fail.