Chances are that the current round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians will end without a final agreement, said President Barack Obama.
He made his remarks during a November interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, which was published online on Sunday.
“‘Obama told me that in all three of his main initiatives in the region—with Iran, with Israel and the Palestinians, with Syria—the odds of completing final treaties are less than fifty-fifty,” wrote Remnick.
“‘On the other hand,’ he said, ‘in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us. And all three are connected. I do believe that the region is going through rapid change and inexorable change. Some of it is demographics; some of it is technology; some of it is economics. And the old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes, What’s next?’”
Obama also said, while discussing Iran, that “members of Congress are very attentive to what Israel says on its security issues.”
The president promised to veto any Iran sanctions bill that reached his desk.
Obama expressed no regrets over his decision to back down from a strike on Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.
“I am haunted by what’s happened,” said the president. “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.”
Obama also emphasized that the interests of Israel and the Sunni Arab states are “very closely aligned.”
“What’s preventing them from entering into even an informal alliance with at least normalized diplomatic relations is not that their interests are profoundly in conflict but the Palestinian issue,” he explained, “as well as a long history of anti-Semitism that’s developed over the course of decades there, and anti-Arab sentiment that’s increased inside of Israel based on seeing buses being blown up. If you can start unwinding some of that, that creates a new equilibrium. And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained, it is expressed in ways that don’t exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and that allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there.”
A new equilibrium in the Middle East was possible, said Obama, and changing Iran’s behavior was a central component of minimizing violence in the region.
“It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” Obama told Resnick. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
President Obama was not apologetic about his decision to step up drone warfare against suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, saying he has “a solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe.”
“That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief. And there are individuals and groups out there that are intent on killing Americans—killing American civilians, killing American children, blowing up American planes. That’s not speculation. It’s their explicit agenda.”
“Where possible,” he added, “we can take targeted strikes, understanding that anytime you take a military strike there are risks involved. What I’ve tried to do is to tighten the process so much and limit the risks of civilian casualties so much that we have the least fallout from those actions. But it’s not perfect.”