Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is too strong, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas too weak, for the two leaders to fully cooperate and make the concessions needed in order to achieve a long lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, US President Barack Obama asserted Friday.
Speaking during an interview with the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, Obama said he believed Netanyahu’s high approval ratings among the Israeli populace contributed to the stalemate in peace negotiations, since Netanyahu was consequently less inclined to engage in risky and divisive political endeavors.
Netanyahu’s “poll numbers are a lot higher than mine,” Obama admitted, adding that the Israeli prime minister’s favorable ratings “were greatly boosted by the war in Gaza.”
The president argued that “if [Netanyahu] doesn’t feel some internal pressure, then it’s hard to see him being able to make some very difficult compromises, including taking on the settler movement. That’s a tough thing to do.”
Obama contended that as opposed to Netanyahu’s solid backing in Israel, Abbas lacked popular support from the Palestinian people and as a result was constrained in his ability to push a peace agreement forward.
“In some ways, Bibi [Netanyahu] is too strong [and] in some ways Abu Mazen [Abbas] is too weak to bring them together and make the kinds of bold decisions that [Egypt's president] Sadat or [Israeli prime ministers] Begin or Rabin were willing to make,” Obama said.
“It’s going to require leadership among both the Palestinians and the Israelis to look beyond tomorrow. … And that’s the hardest thing for politicians to do is to take the long view on things.”
When asked whether he was concerned over the fate of Israel in the future, Obama replied that the Jewish state’s extraordinary achievements over the decades since its creation, along with the country’s military might, provided him with solid reason to believe no threat existed to the survival of the nation.
“It is amazing to see what Israel has become over the last several decades,” the president said.
“To have scratched out of rock this incredibly vibrant, incredibly successful, wealthy and powerful country is a testament to the ingenuity, energy and vision of the Jewish people. And because Israel is so capable militarily, I don’t worry about Israel’s survival.”
Obama said the he was instead troubled by the challenges facing Israel with regards to the country’s ability to uphold democratic values and maintain security on the one hand, while at the same time not denying rights from Palestinians on the other.
“I think the question really is how does Israel survive,” Obama said.
“How can you preserve a Jewish state that is also reflective of the best values of those who founded Israel. And, in order to do that, it has consistently been my belief that you have to find a way to live side by side in peace with Palestinians. … You have to recognize that they have legitimate claims, and this is their land and neighborhood as well.”
Earlier in the interview, the US president weighed on what the New York Times described as the “disintegration” of the familiar world order, including recent Russian aggression in Ukraine, military advances of the radical sunni extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the shifting attitudes towards American intervention in embattled countries across the world.
Tensions between Netanyahu and Obama have run high recently over American efforts to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with Israeli officials aiming sharp criticism at the administration in Washington for its handling of the negotiations.
Under particular scrutiny was US Secretary of State John Kerry’s choice of turning to Qatar and Turkey as mediators, ostensibly undermining an earlier Egyptian ceasefire proposal. Turkey and especially Qatar have close ties with Hamas, while Egypt has shown deep animosity towards the Islamist group since the toppling of Cairo’s Muslim Brotherhood government last year by now-President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
A ceasefire offer Kerry negotiated after talks with representatives from Qatar and Turkey, which he offered to Israel two weeks ago, was unanimously rejected by the Israeli security cabinet and panned as one that answered most of Hamas’s demands while giving Israel very little in return. Kerry later said it was only a draft.
Obama administration officials fumed over the criticism, warning that personal attacks on Kerry in the Israeli media crossed a line and could put the relationship between the US and Israel in jeopardy.
Since then several tense conversations have been reported between Israeli and American officials, and on Sunday the State Department issued an unusually strong condemnation of Israel, calling its actions appalling and “disgraceful” after a UN school in Gaza was hit by a tank shell, leaving 10 people dead.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, have downplayed the reports of a growing rift with Washington, and Netanyahu has called American support throughout the operation against Hamas “terrific.”