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Middle East

US-Israeli tensions spill into the open in closing days of Obama administration

The Obama administration's long-running frustration with Israel has resulted in a rebuke from the UN and an impassioned speech from Secretary of State John Kerry. But why now, when Obama's term is coming to an end?

Eight years of tension between two historically staunch allies spilled into the open this week as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his unyielding intransigence to a new level in the closing days of US President Barack Obama's term in office.

With Obama still in office for three more weeks, the Israeli prime minister sought to do an end-run around him, reaching out to President-elect Donald Trump to try and stave off a UN Security Council resolution that rebuked Israel for its ongoing settlement buildup in the West Bank.

But Netanyahu's machinations failed and with the United States choosing to abstain from the Security Council resolution, rather than vote against it, Israel received its harshest rebuke from the international body in more than 35 years.

On Tuesday, prominent Israeli newspaper "Haaretz" published a blistering attack on Netanyahu's sensational breach of protocol.

Watch video 01:52

Israel: Netanyahu angry over UN resolution

"Netanyahu doesn't want anyone interfering as he destroys diplomatic relations with the countries, some friendly to Israel, that 'dared' to vote for the resolution declaring the settlements illegal," the paper wrote.

"The burial of the Foreign Ministry and the abandonment of diplomacy turns out to be part of a broad and dangerous plan to disengage from international law and stop playing by its rules."

Some time ago Netanyahu effectively dissolved the Foreign Ministry, handling all foreign relations issues out of his prime ministerial office.

Aaron David Miller, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, called the imbroglio "a fitting conclusion to an eight-year soap opera whose personalities fundamentally clashed."

Miller described the personal relationship between the leaders of the US and Israel as "the most dysfunctional relationship in the past 30 years."

That dysfunction is driven in part by contrasting personalities - the sagacious Obama against the pugnacious Netanyahu.

What path to peace?

But beyond personalities, and what appears to be considerable personal enmity, the relationship ultimately floundered over two manifestly opposing views of how, if at all, to move toward a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which in its current iteration has simmered and boiled over in starts and fits since Israel seized the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, during the Six-Day War in 1967.

For more than two decades the conventional wisdom has been that the path to a viable and sustainable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a two-state solution. That is, a sovereign Israel and a sovereign Palestine living side-by-side.

Fundamental to this solution is an understanding that Israel would have to vacate many of its West Bank settlements, which would be part of land returned to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu has ostensibly endorsed this idea but in practice has all but ignored it, moving ahead with ongoing settlement constructions in east Jerusalem and the broader West Bank.

Last week's UN resolution that has so inflamed Netanyahu, the Israeli far-right and, for that matter, a large swathe of the US political arena beholden to Israeli special interest money, calls Israel's ongoing settlement construction a "flagrant violation" of international law which has "no legal validity."

The resolution, which has no enforcement mechanism or sanction attached, also calls on Israel to abide by the Geneva Convention with regard to its role as an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu feels the heat

The UN resolution puts Netanyahu between the proverbial rock and a hard place, according to Miller.

"He is sandwiched between the international pressure for progress towards a peace settlement and Israel's far-right which is eager for more settlements," Miller told DW.

"He doesn't want to be hostage to his own right-wing," he continued. "This creates significant difficulties for Netanyahu. He can try to restrain the right-wing against further development in the West Bank or he can go with the [international] flow."

US Secretary of State John Kerry added to the maelstrom on Wednesday, delivering a speech that was essentially unprecedented in both its length and its passion.

For more than 70 minutes, Kerry held court as he made his impassioned case that peace and a two-state solution was not only the morally correct thing to do but that it was, at heart, in Israel's best interest.

"Rarely has a US foreign policy speech been so long, with such passion, irritation and, at times, anger," Miller said.

Kerry's speech was slammed by the Israeli right, as well as many in the US, but German Foreign Minister Frank Walter-Steinmeier praised the US effort, in a statement that was posted on the German ministry's website.

"It tells us that we must not permit the two‑state solution to become an empty phrase," Steinmeier said. "And it calls on both sides to clearly demonstrate their commitment to the two‑state solution and to take steps on the ground to underpin this commitment. Together with our partners in the EU, we remain ready to play our part for peace."

Superpower limits

But why provoke a diplomatic firestorm in the closing days of an administration, without an opportunity to force the issue, and with an incoming administration that appears willing to do Netanyahu's bidding without question?

Despite the US being the world's lone superpower, Miller said there are still limits as to what it can achieve on the ground.

"Talking is a lot easier than doing," he said. "The administration has been reluctant all along to impose sanctions or penalties. There has never been a moment in the past eight years when [they] could have been used to accomplish something positive."

To say something now, specifically Kerry's speech," Miller said, "It frames the issue for posterity - it's a rhetorical baseline."

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