US President Barack Obama said that he cannot see the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships reaching even a framework deal on peace, and warned that there is a danger of Israel losing even more credibility in an international community that doesn’t believe Israel is serious about a two-state solution.
Obama made the comments during an in-depth interview with Channel 2 reporter Ilana Dayan at the White House that was broadcast on Israeli television Tuesday.
“I don’t see the likelihood of a framework agreement,” he said when asked about the chances for peace talks during his remaining year and a half in office.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, had not done enough to explore the “politics of hope.” Obama warned that this could make it more difficult for the US to defend Israel on the international stage.
The president recalled a statement by Netanyahu made the day before national elections in March in which the Israeli leader declared that a Palestinian state would not be established during his term.
“Subsequently his statements have suggested that there is a possibility of a Palestinian state, but it has so many caveats, so many conditions, that it is not realistic to think that those conditions will be met anytime in the near future,” the president said.
“The danger is that Israel as a whole loses credibility,” Obama added. “Already the international community does not believe that Israel is serious about the two-state solution.”
When Netanyahu does talk about a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “we talk about peace in the abstract […] It’s always tomorrow, it’s always later,” Obama complained.
“Up until this point we have pushed away European efforts or other efforts against Israel at the UN,” he said. But “if in fact there is no prospect of a peace process, if nobody believes there is a peace process, then it becomes more difficult to argue with those who are concerned with settlement construction, those who are concerned about the current situation,” Obama said, intimating the US may no longer block resolutions criticizing Israel, but stopping short of announcing support for any concrete proposals.
Asked about his low popularity in Israel, Obama said there was a gap in communication between him and Israelis.
“There are a lot of filters between me and the Israelis,” he said, adding that Israelis were “not receiving” the president’s messages directly from him.
But he emphasized his commitment to Israel’s security.
“It’s a solemn commitment that I’ve made… It’s not conditioned on any policy. I consider it a moral obligation for us to support a Jewish homeland.”
Dayan asked the US president about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3, in which the Israeli prime minister defied the president’s wishes and accepted an invitation from Republican House leader John Boehner to address Congress and warn lawmakers against the Obama-backed emerging deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
Netanyahu “cares very much about the security of the Israeli people, in his view he was doing what’s right,” Obama said. “In my mind, it is very much in Israel’s interest that Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons.”
While he generally steered clear of directly criticizing Netanyahu, Obama did offer his view on the prime minister’s Congress speech by way of comparison: “If I turned up at the Knesset without checking with the prime minister first, or negotiated with Mr. [Isaac] Herzog [leader of the Israeli opposition], there would be certain protocols breached.”
‘Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody who’s predisposed to think of security first, to think perhaps that peace is naïve, to see the worst possibilities as opposed to the best possibilities of Arab partners and Palestinians partners’
Early in the interview Obama spoke of the “moral imperative” behind both the establishment of Israel and independence for the Palestinians. The moral claims of “a Palestinian family in Ramallah” that suffers restrictions of movement “have a claim on us, they have a claim on me.”
Touching on the deeply uneasy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu on the Iranian issue, Dayan asked the president about the possibility of Israel striking Iran without informing the US in advance.
“I won’t speculate on that,” he said. “What I can say is, to the Israeli people: I understand your concerns and I understand your fears.”
“Given that incredible turmoil chaos that’s taken place in the Middle East, the hope of the Arab spring that turned into disaster of places like Syria, the rise of ISIL [an acronym for the Islamic State], the continuing expressions of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment in so much of the Arab world, the rockets coming in from Gaza, the buildup of weapons from Hezbollah — all those things justifiably make Israelis concerned about security, and security first,” he said.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody who’s predisposed to think of security first, to think perhaps that peace is naïve, to see the worst possibilities as opposed to the best possibilities of Arab partners and Palestinians partners.”
Those fears are driving Jerusalem’s current policies, he suggested. But Israelis should not only worry of immediate terror and war, but also about the long-term effects of maintaining the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza, he said, hinting at the possibility of Israel losing its Jewish majority and of another violent Palestinian uprising. These “long-term trends are very dangerous for Israel,” he said.
The president also addressed the significant differences between the US and Israel on the emerging P5+1 agreement with Tehran, asserting that the accord he backs is the best way to ensure security for the foreseeable future.
Obama has led the diplomatic initiative to try to end a 12-year international standoff between Tehran and the West, while Netanyahu has long decried the emerging deal as dangerous, saying it will “pave the way” to an Iranian bomb, and has repeatedly warned that the easing of sanctions would enable the Iranian government to continue sponsoring terrorism and fomenting unrest across the region.
‘The deal we are negotiating will take a nuclear bomb off the table for the next 20 years’
While Obama has publicly supported the emerging agreement that is based on a framework deal reached at the beginning of April, Netanyahu has strongly criticized the plan for not dismantling Iran’s nuclear bomb-making capabilities.
“I can, I think, demonstrate, not based on any hope but on facts and evidence and analysis, that the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable, tough agreement,” he said.
“A military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it,” he added.
“Sanctions won’t do it, a military solution is temporary, the deal we are negotiating will take a nuclear bomb off the table for the next 20 years.”
The countries negotiating with Iran — the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany — have until June 30 to reach a final, comprehensive agreement, with some countries suggesting there might be a deadline extension.
The United States says Iran has agreed in principle to enhanced inspections of its nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), particularly under the Additional Protocol that allows snap inspections.
Excerpts from the interview, including some of the comments on Iran, were broadcast as a preview to the interview on Monday night.
Netanyahu earlier on Tuesday rejected Obama’s Iran comments, warning that the emerging deal would all but ensure that Iran attains a nuclear arsenal. He said the deal would also see Iran’s economy boosted and thus enable it to engage in further terrorist activity.
Despite their differences of opinion, Obama was upbeat about his dealings with Netanyahu during the Channel 2 interview, referring to the Israeli prime minister by his nickname “Bibi.”
“When I’m with Bibi we have good conversations; they are tough, they are forceful, but I enjoy jousting with him.”
The US-Israeli relationship is stronger than any two individuals who have different political orientations, he asserted. “I am more worried about is an Israeli politics that’s motivated only by fear, and that leads to a loss core values that when I was young and I was admiring Israel from afar were what were the essence of this nation.”
Ultimately, it is up to the people of Israel and its duly elected government to decide where it wants to go, Obama said, but as Israel’s most important ally, he allowed himself to air his concerns. Some of the criticism he has about Israel he has also had about his own country, the president added. The US went through a period in which, “as a consequence of reactive fear, we made very damaging strategic mistakes.” Referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama said the US lost much credibility of world stage, and in some cases — such as instances in which Iraqi prisoners were tortured — “we lost our values.”
“I respectfully suggest that Israel has to do that same self-reflecting, because if it doesn’t, then there are things that you can lose that don’t just involve rockets,” he said.
AP, AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.