HAIFA, Israel – President Obama's possible attempt to pay back Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for praising his rival during the last election could be backfiring.
Obama, who was reportedly peeved by Netanyahu’s perceived endorsement of Mitt Romney leading up to November’s election, was recently quoted saying, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”
The remark, which was relayed as a private comment in a column written by Jeffrey Goldberg for Bloomberg News, comes as Netanyahu faces an election of his own and is being widely viewed in Israel as meddlesome payback, not to mention a diplomatic trespass. But if that is the case, it may boomerang.
Senior representatives in Netanyahu’s governing Likud party seethed, accusing Obama of “gross interference.” But instead of undermining Netanyahu’s campaign, Idan Kweller, political correspondent for Israel’s high-profile Galay Tzahal radio, told FoxNews.com that the president’s comments may have had the reverse effect.
“I understand from Bibi’s close circle that the prime minister is quite happy with what Obama said," Kweller said. "Evidence of that view is that the Israel Today newspaper, [closely linked to Bibi], ran the story as their front page headline this morning. They wouldn’t have done that if it was something that made Netanyahu uncomfortable.”
The righteous indignation from Likud members is likely not aimed so much at Obama, but designed to make sure no one in Israel misses the point, said Kweller. After all, there's nothing like criticism from outside to prompt circling of wagons.
“Yesterday’s outraged reactions were certainly playing to the gallery,” Kweller said. “Obama’s comments may well have the reverse effect in that many Israelis, even if they are not Netanyahu supporters, they are certainly not Obama supporters and may feel they should now come out and vote for Bibi. The Likud party has long taken the view that Obama does not rule the U.S., and feel that Capitol Hill is with them -- even if Obama isn’t.”
Obama and Netanyahu have long had a frosty personal relationship. When then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy was caught on a live microphone in 2011 telling Obama Netanyahu is "a liar," Obama responded, "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you." And although Netanyahu did not expressly endorse Romney, (who he has known since the 1970s), his kind words about the former Massachusetts governor in the fall were seen as a move to boost his standing among American Jews.
On policy matters, Netanyahu and Obama have clashed over Israel's building on contested land in the greater Jerusalem area and what some close to Netanyahu see as the U.S.' tepid stance against Iran's nuclear weapons plans.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor did not confirm that Obama had made "that specific comment" about Israel. But he noted Obama has said the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering, and said the U.S. is interested in helping to broker peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
"It is in Israel’s interest to pursue peace," Vietor said. "Both parties need to get serious and resume direct talks to work through the difficult issues that divide them and make meaningful progress toward a lasting peace. We need to be focused on productive action that will move the parties toward direct negotiations."
Writing in Wednesday’s Yediot Aharonot, a leading Israeli daily newspaper, Orly Azoulay contended, “For a while now Obama has told associates he does not believe a word that comes out of Netanyahu's mouth. The U.S. president does not trust Netanyahu and does not consider him an ally -- someone he can move things forward with.”
Most political observers believe that the stormy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu will not have serious repercussions, because the longtime allies' national interests are bigger than personal issues between the men.
“President Obama’s comments are things that he has been saying all along and I don’t think will affect the relationship," Dr. Max Singer, co-founder of the Washington-based Hudson Institute and an expert at Israel’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, told FoxNews.com. "The misunderstanding by Obama that these comments show is that he seems to think that Netanyahu is an outlier on Israeli public opinion, when in fact he’s square in the center of what the majority in Israel think.”
“Netanyahu is a very practical man,” Singer continued, “and is not about to let any personal feelings he might have affect him. The big point is that he and Obama see the Middle East very differently.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.com and can be followed on Twitter @paulalster