Israeli prime minister's aides accused American president of interfering in Israel's elections
Already fractious relations between Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama have been further strained in the runup to the president's inauguration on Monday and the Israeli prime minister's anticipated victory in Tuesday's election.
Netanyahu aides accused Obama of interfering in the Israeli election following publication of an article by Jeffrey Goldberg, which quoted the president as saying: "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are." Obama, wrote Goldberg, viewed Netanyahu as a "political coward".
The Israeli president, Shimon Peres, who has voiced alarm at the rupture between the two leaders, was due to meet a delegation of US senators, led by Republican John McCain, in Jerusalem on Saturday night to discuss strengthening strategic relations between the two allies.
"We must not lose the support of the United States. What gives Israel bargaining power in the international arena is the support of the United States... Without US support, it would be very difficult for us. We would be like a lone tree in the desert," he told the New York Times last week.
The Goldberg article, along with Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel as defence secretary, has been interpreted in Israel as clear signs of the president's exasperation with Netanyahu and possible payback for the latter's support of Obama's rival, Mitt Romney, in the US election in November. Hagel is seen as "anti-Israel" because of his questioning of Israeli government policy and the pro-Israel lobby in the US.
Goldberg, who is known to be close to the president, wrote that Israel risked becoming "more of a pariah" and that Obama was reluctant to invest fresh effort in the Middle East peace process in the face of Netanyahu's continued settlement expansion.
"On matters related to the Palestinians, the president seems to view the prime minister as a political coward, an essentially unchallenged leader who nevertheless is unwilling to lead or spend political capital to advance the cause of compromise," Goldberg wrote.
"Obama... has been consistent in his analysis of Israel's underlying challenge: If it doesn't disentangle itself from the lives of West Bank Palestinians, the world will one day decide it is behaving as an apartheid state." The White House did not deny the words attributed to the president.
"Barack Obama said, simply and clearly, what he thinks about Israel's prime minister and where he is leading Israel," wrote former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas in Yedioth Ahronoth. "These are grave, alarming statements, which are without precedent."
Netanyahu is expected to continue as prime minister following Tuesday's election, which is likely to see a significant strengthening of the hardline pro-settler faction within the Israeli parliament. He is thought to be keen to include at least one centrist party in the next coalition government, in part to appease the US administration.
The Israeli prime minister is expected to visit Washington in March for the annual meeting of the pro-Israel lobby group Aipac. Obama and Netanyahu did not meet during the latter's last visit to the US in September in what was seen as a White House snub. Obama has not visited Israel since taking office four years ago, although there has been speculation about a possible trip in the summer.