WASHINGTON (JTA) – Joe and Bibi? Still buddies. U.S. and Israel? Still allies. Agreement on Iran and the Palestinians?
The governments of U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were back on joshing terms this week, but the deep differences that led to recent name-calling exchanges still percolated.
Netanyahu and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, as well as top aides in both governments, used back-to-back conferences this weekend to get the message across loud and clear: We love one another.
“Ron, you’d better damn well report to Bibi that we’re still buddies. You got it, right?” Biden said Monday, picking out Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, known for his closeness to Netanyahu, from the crowd at the annual Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, this year taking place outside Washington in Oxon Hill, Md.
The next afternoon, at the conference’s close, Netanyahu was right back atcha in a video-linked address.
“And by the way, Ron, you can tell Vice-President Biden that I know we’re still buddies, we’ll always be buddies,” Netanyahu said from his library.
Dermer spoke Saturday night to the Israeli American Council, a crowd that would be more skeptical than most of claims that the Obama administration had Israel’s back.
But the ambassador went out of his way to show that not only was the alliance close, it was unprecedentedly close, and the recent hiccups were not unusual.
Dermer praised the “the moral, political and strategic support that Israel has enjoyed for over six decades from Republican and Democratic administrations, including from the Obama administration.”
“Today the depth of that support comes in the form of unprecedented security co-operation and intelligence sharing, record military assistance and missile defence funding and backing at the United Nations and other ways,” he said.
The loquacious Biden in his Jewish Federations speech could not resist the repeated use of the “L” word.
“I once signed a photo to Bibi: ‘I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you,’ ” he said. “We love one another and we drive one another crazy – I’m serious. That’s what friends do. We are straight with one another.”
Crazy may be overstating it, but the relationship sure has been fraught: From anonymous Israeli government accusations over the summer that Secretary of State John Kerry was engaging in a ”terrorist” attack on Israel by backing a cease-fire agreement with Hamas that had been shaped by its Qatari backers; to Netanyahu’s lecturing U.S. TV audiences on how un-American it was for the Obama administration to oppose Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem; to an anonymous Obama administration official telling journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu’s behavior on the peace process and on Iran was “chickenshit.”
Despite the recent love fests, the issues that underpinned the tensions remained.
It’s not yet clear whether Iran and the major powers will reach a deal by the Nov. 24 deadline, but Philip Gordon, the National Security Council’s Middle East counselor, told JTA that were such a deal achieved, in all likelihood it would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium at limited levels.
“We’ve said yes, we can imagine a small enrichment program, so long as we had confidence that if they try to break out, we’ll have plenty of time, and that’s the only deal we’ll accept,” Gordon said during a Q&A at the General Assembly. (JTA’s Ron Kampeas moderated the session.)
Netanyahu in his remarks to the Jewish Federations gathering said that allowing Iran to keep any enrichment capacity would leave it as a nuclear threshold state.
“The worst thing that could happen now is for the international community to agree to a deal that would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power and removes its sanctions,” he said.
Also percolating was blame-laying as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remained in tatters and violence intensified in Israel and the West Bank. This week, two Israelis have been stabbed to death in terrorist attacks and one Palestinian was killed in the West Bank in clashes with Israeli troops.
For Netanyahu, blame had a single address: the Palestinians.
“The Palestinian Authority, which should also be working to calm tensions, has joined Hamas,” he said, in “fanning the flames.”
The Israeli leader referred to Palestinian praise for the gunman who two weeks ago attempted to kill a Jewish activist, Yehuda Glick, who seeks greater Jewish access to the Temple Mount, and to P.A. claims that Jews have no historical affinity to the site.
The Obama administration, however, sees blame on both sides. Netanyahu this week urged Arab-Israelis protesting the shooting death of an Arab-Israeli protester to move to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
“Anyone who is not urging calm and nonviolence and a return to the status quo runs the risk that it can be a very explosive situation,” Gordon said.