What Does Obama Want From Netanyahu?

If the Israeli prime minister wants to make nice, here’s what he’ll have to do.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing pressure from ,Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing pressure from USA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem, March 25, 2015.

Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

Two days after his comeback victory in Israel’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to walk back his incendiary pre-election statements. He told American news outlets that he hadn’t really retracted his endorsement of Palestinian statehood. And he pleaded that he hadn’t meant to offend Arab Israelis when he warned that they were coming out to vote “in droves.”

President Obama and his spokesmen could have accepted these conciliatory gestures. Instead, they refused to let Netanyahu retreat. They insisted that his election-eve declaration against statehood was his real position, and that the United States would rethink its approach to peace talks, since Israel no longer seemed serious about negotiating.

Why is Obama taking such a hard line? What is he trying to accomplish? What does he want from Israel?

The administration hasn’t answered those questions. But in the last few days, its posture has changed. A week ago, just after the election, Obama’s aides portrayed Netanyahu’s position on Palestinian statehood as unclear. They argued that the prime minister had said one thing before the election and another thing after the election. Therefore, nobody knew what he really believed.

This week, the administration has sharpened its critique. The new public assessment is that Netanyahu’s election-eve dismissal of Palestinian statehood is genuine, because it matches other statements he made at the same time. First, just before confirming that under his rule “a Palestinian state will not be established,” he explained why: “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel.” Netanyahu argued that a Palestinian state could not be accepted as long as ISIS, Iran, and other militant threats made such a state a possible staging ground for violence.

Second, on the same day, Netanyahu boasted that he had approved Har Homa, a Jewish settlement in eastern Jerusalem, to fracture Palestinian territory. “It was a way of stopping Bethlehem from moving toward Jerusalem,” he explained. “This neighborhood, exactly because it stops the continuation of the Palestinians, I saw the potential was really great.”

By linking its hard line against Israel to these two statements, the Obama administration is sending Netanyahu a message that he must rethink both policies. He must halt the offending settlements. And he must withdraw his demand that Middle Eastern stability precede Israel’s acceptance of Palestinian statehood.

The conventional view of the current U.S.-Israel standoff is that the Obama administration unloaded on Netanyahu immediately after his victory. But that account doesn’t quite match the record. For several days, as Netanyahu scrambled to rephrase his views, administration spokesmen expressed agnosticism. When reporters pointed to Netanyahu’s post-election revisions and asked why Obama didn’t take the prime minister “at his word,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest retorted: “Which one?” Earnest argued that “even the divergent comments of the prime minister legitimately call into question his commitment.” In an interview on Friday with the Huffington Post, Obama said he was re-evaluating U.S. policy because of Netanyahu’s dismissal of Palestinian statehood before the election. The president didn’t address Netanyahu’s post-election backpedaling and didn’t explain why it shouldn’t be believed.

Over the weekend, that posture changed. On Monday, in a speech to J Street, a liberal Jewish group, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough explained why the administration didn’t buy Netanyahu’s post-election spin:

After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position. But for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution, as did his suggestion that the construction of settlements has a strategic purpose of dividing Palestinian communities and his claim that conditions in the larger Middle East must be more stable before a Palestinian state can be established. We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations.

McDonough’s speech cut through the agnosticism. In his analysis, Netanyahu’s election-eve rejection of statehood wasn’t just a superficial gesture to the Israeli right. It matched the prime minister’s remarks about Har Homa and creating a staging ground for Islamic radicals. Each statement—no state on my watch, any state would be a military threat, settlements divide the West Bank—reinforced the others. The portrait cohered. This was the real Netanyahu.

On Tuesday, Obama went further. In a press conference, he said of the prime minister:

Afterwards, he pointed out that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But, of course, the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon. So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state.

With this assessment, the president went beyond McDonough. He didn’t see Netanyahu’s post-election spin as contradicting what the prime minister had said before the election. Indeed, Obama agreed with Netanyahu that the pre-election and post-election remarks were reconcilable. But what united those remarks wasn’t the possibility of a Palestinian state. It was Netanyahu’s insistence on pre-state conditions that were unachievable by the Palestinians and beyond any plausible time horizon. As long as Israel held to those conditions, the United States would have to look for other ways to advance statehood.

Obama didn’t specify what Israel had to do to regain the administration’s trust. Neither did McDonough. When pressed for answers, the administration remains maddeningly vague about what it expects Israel to do. But the signals seem to be getting through. On Wednesday, Israel froze construction of new units at Har Homa. Hours later, without reference to the construction or any particular Israeli response, Earnest told reporters: “It’s clear what our position is. And I think it’s also clear that that message has been received.”

Many people with an interest in the U.S.-Israeli relationship have watched the administration’s post-election statements with alarm. Its criticism of Netanyahu has seemed unyielding and unappeasable. I don’t think Obama and his aides have worked out exactly what they want. But they do seem to be settling on a critique that focuses on Israel’s settlement policy and its unrealistic insistence on regional stability as a prerequisite to statehood. If Netanyahu wants to regain credibility in Washington and the rest of the world, that’s what he’ll have to surrender.