As one might expect from an adept, articulate speaker, knowing he was sitting with a mature, respectful audience unlikely to directly confront him too nastily, President Barack Obama was in confident and relaxed mood during his interview with Haim Saban in Washington, DC, on Saturday. But it was still quite striking to see him smile and nod in broad assent when asked, by Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan toward the end of the session, whether he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might analyze the interim deal struck with Iran in Geneva last month rather differently.
“I think that’s probably a good bet,” Obama said, grinning hugely. “That’s more than 50/50.” Cue considerable audience laughter.
Rarely has the president been so candid in setting out his philosophy for grappling with the Middle East, and rarely so open and easygoing in acknowledging the profound differences in approach between him and Netanyahu, albeit while stressing the shared goals of Israeli-Palestinian peace and ensuring Iran not attain the bomb.
Netanyahu has rejected the Geneva deal as a “historic mistake” because he fears the sanctions pressure will now collapse, and because he is concerned that Iran will be left with an enrichment capability that will enable it to break out to the bomb when it so chooses. But most fundamentally, he considers the agreement a mistake because it lets the regime off the hook — ensuring it will survive. And so long as the regime survives, Netanyahu is certain that Islamist Iran will constitute a profound threat to the free world in general, and to Israel in particular.
Obama, in the most illuminating passage of his appearance, set out a dramatically different mindset. Yes, he acknowledged, “one has to assume” that even President Hassan Rouhani holds to an ideology “that is hostile to the United States and to Israel.” But the fact that Rouhani was elected last June — as the least hardline of six presidential candidates — spoke volumes about the Iranian public’s mindset. Ordinary Iranians, said Obama, plainly want “a change of direction,” a shift in the way they “interact with the world.”
The Middle East will undergo a great deal of change in the coming decade, Obama continued, warming to his theme. “Wherever we see the impulses of a people to move away from conflict, violence, and toward diplomatic resolution of conflicts, we should be ready and prepared to engage them — understanding, though, that ultimately it’s not what you say, it’s what you do.”
It was vital not to “be naive about the dangers” posed by the Iranian regime, the president stressed, and to “fight them wherever they are engaging in terrorism or actions that are hostile to us or our allies. But we have to not constantly assume that it’s not possible for Iran, like any country, to change over time.”
Don’t assume the worst? Assuming the worst is precisely what I am duty-bound to do, Netanyahu, had he been in the room, would likely have wanted to retort.
The president peppered his remarks with the customary reiteration of Israel’s right and responsibility to protect its interests, and to determine how to safeguard its security as it sees fit. When discussing the Palestinian issue, he took pains to stress that the US could not and would not “dictate” terms to Israel. And he said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would have to make serious compromises, during what he termed a “transitional period,” in order to ensure that Israel could be confident of its long-term security as a Jewish state.
But his key points of difference with Netanyahu came through loud and clear: The prime minister was unrealistic in the terms he was demanding of Iran — the regime won’t just “cave” under the relentless pressure Netanyahu wants, Obama argued — and the prime minister was sometimes unnecessarily bleak when contemplating the challenges facing Israel in the fast-shifting region.
Of course, Obama noted, Netanyahu would himself soon be addressing the very same forum, via satellite from Jerusalem, and would set out his own positions.
It will be interesting to see whether Netanyahu, who speaks on Sunday, will match Obama for easygoing candor and for open acknowledgement of the yawning gulf between their mindsets.
If he does, the prime minister might remark that, in fact, he fully shares the president’s belief that the Iranian public wants a much improved interaction with the free world. It is for precisely that reason, he might add, that he is baffled and horrified by Obama’s apparent readiness to condemn Iranians to continued oppression by the uranium-enriching regime of the ayatollahs.
Cave under the pressure? That’s exactly what the regime would have done, Netanyahu might feel moved to add (though even candor has its limits), if only Obama hadn’t caved first.