President Obama, in his interview with Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg, was unusually blunt and personal in demanding that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu show leadership on achieving a two-state solution. Many saw the interview, published the day before Obama and Netanyahu met in the Oval Office last week, as a sharp rebuke of Netanyahu’s approach to West Bank settlement construction and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, tells JTA that the interview amounted to an “ambush.”
“I was more saddened than I was surprised; it was in the nature of an ambush,” he told me Friday. “It was a throwback to the days of the first term, which we’d thought we’d left behind. If you examine any foreign visitor who has come to the U.S. to see the president who has gotten this kind of ambush … I can’t remember it.”
Foxman acknowledged that he wasn’t sure whether Obama’s remarks were driven by personal pique or strategy.
“I can speculate two perspectives,” he said. “One was accumulated anger at Israel and the prime minister for the continued barrage of criticism of White House policy on Iran. It was nonstop, right or wrong — for Israel the issue is existential — but I think the administration was really peeved at the continued barrage. And all the ministers encouraging congressional activity” on Iran.
Foxman wouldn’t call it payback — “too crude,” he said. But he could see it as a strategy to deflect focus from Iran to the peace process during Netanyahu’s visit and his address to the AIPAC policy conference. “To some degree he succeeded,” he said.
Foxman’s other theory is that the Palestinians are getting spooked by the framework peace agreement that Secretary of State John Kerry is about to unveil. Kerry has received high marks from the Israelis for dealing head-on with issues they maintain are critical to any agreement, particularly recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and security in the Jordan Valley.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of noises that the Palestinians are ready to opt out,” he said. “America has turned around on two core issues. This may have been an effort to balance,” to reassure the Palestinians that Obama still had their concerns regarding settlement activity at the forefront of his approach to peacemaking.
“Let’s assume it’s a tactic; that’s problematic because it sets up the president versus Kerry,” Foxman said.
A corrective, he said, would be for Obama to give a similar interview criticizing Palestinian actions on the eve of his meeting next week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“I’d like to be proven wrong,” Foxman said.