JERUSALEM - Only the people of Israel can decide who will represent their best interests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday in remarks directed at US President Barack Obama a week before a general election.
"I think everyone knows that the citizens of Israel are the only ones who can decide who will faithfully represent the vital interests of the state," he said.
His remarks came in response to an article by prominent Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in which he quoted Obama as saying repeatedly: "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are."
Obama, he wrote, appeared to see Netanyahu as a "political coward" vis-a-vis the peace process with the Palestinians who was completely "captive to the settler lobby," and whose ongoing settlement activity was moving Israel "down a path toward near total isolation."
Senior figures from Netanyahu's ruling rightwing Likud party reacted furiously, accusing the US leader of "gross interference" in the upcoming election, which is widely expected to see Israelis reelect their hawkish prime minister.
"Over the last four years, we have faced tremendous pressure and we will continue to stand up for the vital interests of Israel and its security," Netanyahu told reporters on a tour of an army base near Gaza, his remarks broadcast on public radio.
Until now, there had been no official response to the article, which on Wednesday dominated the headlines in the newspapers as well as on Israel's main television and radio stations.
"This is gross interference by the US president in the elections in Israel," senior Likud officials told Israel HaYom, while others told The Jerusalem Post he was "taking revenge" for the Israeli leader's overt support for Obama's rival during the presidential race in November.
But Danny Danon, number five on the Likud list, put a positive spin on Obama's "intervention," saying it would chalk up more votes for the premier.
"Any external intervention attempt only brings us more seats," he told Yediot Aharonot.
Opposition figures leapt at the chance to attack Netanyahu.
"Anyone who still thinks things will be okay woke up this morning to a very clear and sharp statement by the US president, who says that Israel's prime minister is leading the state of Israel into severe isolation," said ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist HaTnuah faction.
In the article, Goldberg wrote that Obama was unsurprised when Israel announced plans to build in E1, a highly sensitive area of West Bank land near Jerusalem, suggesting it was "what he has come to expect" from Netanyahu's "self-defeating policies."
Although the US would not cut off its aid to Israel, Obama was not likely to "waste his time on Mideast peace" and Israel could soon notice a "significant shift" on the diplomatic front, he wrote.
"It is in terms of American diplomatic protection -- among the Europeans and especially at the UN -- that Israel may one day soon notice a significant shift," he said, suggesting the US may fail to whip up votes against perceived anti-Israel resolutions, and could even itself abstain.
In an editorial, the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said the piece provided serious food for thought for voters just six days before the election.
These statements "are food for thought, served up to Israeli citizens before they retreat into their shell of apathy and elect a right-wing government comprised of Likud, (the secular nationalist) Yisrael Beitenu, (the hardline religious) Jewish Home and the ultra-Orthodox parties, which will lead the country into a confrontation with Obama and the rest of the world."