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Top Obama aide ‘not surprised, but disappointed’ by Netanyahu’s reaction to UN vote

Deputy National Security Adviser For Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, February 16, 2016. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

December 26, 2016

A senior adviser for President Barack Obama said Tuesday he was “disappointed” in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremely harsh response to the UN Security Council vote on settlements, but added that there’s isn’t much the Israeli leader does that surprises him anymore.

President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told Israel’s Channel 2 news it was unfair to suggest Obama’s decision to abstain from an anti-settlements resolution at the United Nations Security Council on Friday was proof of any anti-Israeli sentiment emanating from the White House.

“I think the true face of this president’s support for Israel can be seen in his entire record,” Rhodes said. “This president has overseen unprecedented military and security cooperation, life-saving support to Iron Dome and a $38 billion memorandum of understanding that he completed before he left office because he wanted to have that commitment to Israel’s security as part of his legacy.”

Netanyahu, who has publicly accused Obama of “ambushing” Israel at the UN with the “shameful” resolution has fumed at the White House for withholding its veto and allowing it to pass, and has also accused Obama of proposing and pushing the measure “behind Israel’s back.”

On Sunday, in an extremely rare move, Netanyhau summoned US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and personally met with him for “clarifications” on Obama’s decision to abstain.

Asked if he was surprised at Netanyahu’s harsh reaction, including the summoning of the ambassador, Rhodes smiled and said, “I don’t think much surprises me anymore.”

“I wouldn’t say surprised, (but) disappointed,” he added, saying that not only does he think it ignores Obama’s commitment to Israel, but that Netanyahu should not have been shocked by the move, given the administration’s public position on settlements.

“By definition it’s not an ambush when President Obama and Secretary Kerry have been saying in hundreds of conversations and in public comments that Israeli settlement activity was pushing into the West Bank in a way that was making the two-state solution unachievable over time,” Rhodes said. The US had made it clear that “if that activity continued, we could see further international steps against further Israeli settlement activity,” he said.

In a interview with MSNBC on Monday, Israeli Ambassador to the US Rob Dermer, called Rhodes a “master of fiction” — a harsh barb that seemed to evoke Rhodes’ past literary aspirations — after Rhodes denied the US was behind the UN resolution.

Rhodes, who on Friday said Netanyahu could have avoided such an outcome had he not allowed for and boasted about increased settlement expansion on his watch, told Channel 2 that a government-backed initiative to authorize West Bank outposts had also contributed to the decision.

Rhodes said the administration could not stand by, “When we see laws that aim to legalize outposts; when we see rhetoric that suggests that this is the most pro settlement Israeli government in history.”

The decision to abstain is in step with Obama’s habit of voting “present” on important bills when he was a state senator and during his short time in the US Senate, shielding himself from the scrutiny that taking a position can bring.

The proposed Regulation Bill stipulates that settlement construction in the West Bank that was carried out in good faith, without the knowledge that the land was privately owned, would be recognized by the government, provided the settlers show some kind of state support in establishing themselves at the site — which in some cases could be as minimal as having access to public infrastructures.

While the final vote on the law had previously been postponed until after President-elect Donald Trump enters the White House on January 20, The Times of Israel reported on Saturday that the bill was put “back on the table” following the Security Council vote.

But Netanyahu has also told his Likud lawmakers not to speak openly about annexing parts of the West Bank or building more settlements so long as Obama is still in office, reportedly for fear of yet more unilateral actions before January 20.

Rhodes, who did not rule out further initiatives or give specific details, said that Kerry would lay out a “comprehensive vision for how we see the conflict being resolved, where we see things in 2016, as we unfortunately conclude our term in office without there being significant progress toward peace.”Netanyahu reportedly thinks that Kerry will set out principles or parameters for a Palestinian state in a speech that he has said he will deliver in the next few days on his Middle East vision. The prime minister is said to fear that, in its final days, the Obama administration will seek to have a resolution enshrining those parameters adopted by the UN Security Council.