Ahead of his first visit to Israel as president next Wednesday, Barack Obama was interviewed Wednesday by Israel’s Channel 2. The interview at the White House, with news anchor Yonit Levy, was screened on Thursday, and described in our liveblog here.
Channel 2 set to broadcast its Obama interview
PREAMBLE: Channel 2’s Yonit Levy interviewed President Barack Obama in the White House on Wednesday — winning the battle of the Israeli television stations to scoop a conversation with the president ahead of his visit to Israel next Wednesday through Friday.
In the final analysis, it was the ratings that won it for Channel 2. It has far higher viewership than commercial rival Channel 10, which is said to be fuming. Especially as Levy and Channel 2 secured the last Israeli TV interview with Obama, in July 2010.
Plenty of hype ahead of the broadcast
Unusually for Israeli TV, Channel 2 did not broadcast any clips of the interview in the past 24 hours.
In numerous promos for the interview, Levy promised that Obama said lots that is of interest on the struggle to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive, on his relationship with Netanyahu, on the Jonathan Pollard case, and on “what he would really like to do in Tel Aviv,” whatever that may mean. We shall see.
Obama: No plan to release Pollard
News opens with two brief excerpts from the interview:
Obama: We think that it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon.
And: I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately.
Obama: It would take Iran over a year to build the bomb
Levy, live in Washington, presents a few highlights.
Here’s the longer quote on Iran: “We think that it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close. So when I am consulting with Bibi… my message to him will be the same as before: If we can resolve it diplomatically, that’s a more lasting solution.” If not, Obama goes on, all options are on the table.
Levy asks him whether he would really order an attack. He pauses, then says, “When I say that all options are on the table, all options are on the table.” And the United States, he notes, “obviously” has significant military capabilities.
The US goal, he says, is to prevent an Iranian weapon that could threaten Israel and trigger an arms race in the region.
‘I’d love to sit at a cafe and just hang out’
Levy asks Obama lightheartedly if there’s anything he’d really like to do in Israel and can’t.
“I’d love to sit at a cafe and just hang out,” he says. “Sometimes I have this fantasy that I can put on a disguise and wear a fake mustache” and wander into Tel Aviv, go to a university and speak to some students, “in a setting that wasn’t so formal.”
Still, on this trip, he says, he’s going to try to find opportunities to interact with Israeli people.
The lack of that kind of freedom to do what you want, he says, is “the toughest thing about being president.”
The Obama interview in full
Channel 2 moves on to cover some of today’s other stories, including a major crash in the West Bank with many injuries, reportedly caused by stone-throwing Palestinians. An Israeli mother and child are said to be among those very badly hurt.
It also notes official Israel’s response to Obama’s talk of a year plus till an Iranian bomb, and says the Israeli leadership is pretty closely coordinated with the US on the issue.
The full interview is apparently going to be screened shortly.
It’s a chance to connect with the Israeli people
It’s a 25-minute conversation. We’ll do our best to keep up.
Levy set off with: What took you so long to come?
Well, says Obama, they’ve had some crises in the United States…. He says the trip is a chance to connect with the Israeli people. The bonds are so strong, he says, and speaks of “shared values. Shared families…” He stresses the US’s “unshakeable commitment” to Israel and the countries’ “shared vision…” And he says he’s really looking forward to the visit.
I’ve been crystal clear on Iran
On Iran, says Obama: We have close coordination with Israel.
He’s been “crystal clear” on the need to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The diplomatic window is not unlimited.
“We think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close.”
Sanctions are having “a significant effect” on the Iranian economy, he says. Iran’s leaders have not made “a fundamental decision to get right” but “they are recognizing that there’s a severe cost” to continuing with the program.
If there can be a diplomatic resolution, that’s a “more lasting” solution. But all options are on the table.
On Iran, my cabinet is prepared for a whole range of contingencies
A nuclear Iran would threaten Israel and spark a dangerous regional arms race, says Obama.
Would his cabinet support a decision to intervene? “My cabinet is prepared for a whole range of contingencies.” Secretaries Kerry and Hagel “share my fundamental view” on a nuclear Iran as a threat to US interest. In the end, it all comes down to the president.
He rejects parallels between Iran and North Korea. Says China and Russia are joining the sanctions against Iran.
Iran has a lot of potential upside in reentering the international community, he says.
Israel has right ‘to be secure as a homeland of the Jewish people’
Levy asks Obama about some Israelis’ negative perceptions of him.
“Some of this is politics… There are conservative views both here in the United States and Israel that may not jive with mine.” And those play out in election seasons. But “I’ve run my last election…” He’s going to be where he is for the next four years.
He wants to tell Israelis, he says, of his admiration for Israel’s history, core values, economic success and “the fundamental right of Israel to be secure as a homeland of the Jewish people, and its connection to the land.”
He’s had his differences with some about the shared goal of how best to preserve Israel as a democratic, Jewish state. “Resolving the Palestinian issue is good” for Israel’s security. If it can be resolved, he stresses.
‘Terrific, businesslike’ relationship with ‘Bibi’
Levy pushes on the Obama-Netanyahu relationship.
He’s met with “Bibi” more than any other world leader, Obama points out, and has “a terrific, businesslike relationship.” It’s sometimes “blunt” but “we get stuff done.”
The US has a center-left government and Israel has a more conservative government, he allows, which wasn’t always the case.
“The bottom line is that Israel’s security is going to be at the forefront.” It’s not a factor of who’s president or prime minister.
What about reports of private conversations when he ostensibly aired criticisms? “Any time you read something where the president allegedly said something in a private meeting, I think you should … take that with a pinch of salt.”
Bottom line: Differences in policy between the two leaderships, he stresses, “end up being bridged and resolved.”
Coming to ‘listen’ on the Palestinian issue
On the Palestinian front, he sounds pessimistic in the short-term. Says Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad have done “excellent work” maintaining security in the West Bank. “But you have Hamas in Gaza” that hasn’t met the Quartet preconditions.
He intends to hear Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ “strategy” and believes it is in both sides’ interests to make progress.
Israel has “an interest in being able to speak to the Arab street,” he says, where most people want peace and prosperity, he believes.
“I will say to both Bibi and Abu Mazen” that each side must recognize the other’s legitimacy. Bibi “should have an interest in strengthening the moderate leadership….”
On settlements, the key question, he says, is “is this making it harder or easier for Palestinian moderates to sit down” at the table?
A settlement freeze, Levy asks? “I think we’re past the point” of preconditions and sequences.
Palestinians need to feel they’ve got “a land of their own” and Israel needs to know that doesn’t come at the price of Israeli security.
How to get into those conversations, he muses? That’s what “I’ll explore.”
Pollard committed a very serious crime
Spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard “committed a very serious crime” and Obama has to follow the rules of review in his case. No plans to release him “immediately.”
But he’ll be “accorded the same kinds of review” open to any other individual. “I recognize the emotions involved in this… My first obligation is to observe the law” and ensure it is applied consistently. Lots of prisoners would like to be released early.
As president, you can’t just interact with people informally
On his last visit, Obama says, as a Senator, he got to hang out at least a little. He can’t do that anymore. He can’t meet people informally.
He says it would be great to wander through Tel Aviv in disguise and go to a university and have some conversations with students in informal settings… but that’s not possible. That really “chafes,” he says. “You can’t just slip out and interact with people without having a bunch of guys with machine-guns” hanging out with you.
Ventures Levy: There must be some compensations?
Obama: Well, there’s “a nice plane.”
And that about wraps it up. Thanks for the interview, says Levy. Looking forward to seeing you in Israel, says the president.
Quick summary: An interesting timeline on Iran, and various familiar-toned comments on the Palestinians. Some well-chosen phrases to describe the relationship with Netanyahu. And a determined stress, absent from his address in Cairo on the Middle East trip early in Obama’s first presidency, on the Jewish right to the Jewish homeland.
Thanks for reading. See you back here with Obama next week.