In a final interview to Israeli media on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama cast doubt on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for the two-state solution, while warning that “unfettered support” by the US for West Bank settlements would lead to a “worsening situation” between Israeli and Palestinians.
The president gave the farewell tete-a-tete to Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan on the “Uvda” show, which aired 10 days before the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump has promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a step not taken by a US president despite several campaign promises over the years. Trump’s future ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an unequivocal supporter of West Bank settlements.
Obama charged that Netanyahu’s actions indicate that he doesn’t support a two-state solution with the Palestinians, pointing to the acceleration of settlement construction in recent years “that was not compelled by Israel’s security.”
“The settlement issue has become a barrier to a two-state solution. Bibi says he that believes in two-state solution and yet his actions have consistently shown that if he’s pressured to approve more settlements he will do so, regardless of what he says of the importance of a two-state solution,” said Obama.
“If the notion is that unfettered support for Israel — or, more specifically, support for the Netanyahu government’s policies, no matter what they are, no matter how inimical they may be to the prospects for peace — if that what’s qualifies as a good friend, then I think that we will see a worsening situation over time,” Obama said. “Because the truth is that this won’t get solved unless the Israeli people and the Palestinians want to solve it.”
He added: “Increasingly what you are seeing is that the facts on the ground are making it almost impossible, at least very difficult –and if this trendline continues, impossible — to create a contiguous, functioning Palestinian state.”
Netanyahu has accused the Obama administration of colluding with the Palestinians when it abstained last month from voting on a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements. On Tuesday, Netanyahu reiterated that claim, saying Israel had “solid information” that proved the US was behind the drafting of the resolution.
Obama dismissed the allegations that Resolution 2334 was initiated by the White House: “We did not prompt it, we did not encourage it,” Obama said.
The outgoing president was asked about Netanyahu’s specific description of the UN move as a “shameful, anti-Israeli ploy.” Did he understand the Israeli “sense of betrayal”? interviewer Ilana Dayan asked.
“No,” Obama replied. “I’ll be honest with you: That kind of hyperbole, those kinds of statements, don’t have a basis in fact.
“They may work well with respect to deflecting attention from the problem of settlements,” the president continued. “They may play well with Bibi’s political base, as well as the Republican base here in the United States, but they don’t match up with the facts.”
Pressed on whether allowing the resolution to pass was the right thing to do so soon before the end of his presidency, Obama responded: “The fact of the matter is that I’m president until January 20, and I have an obligation to do what I think is right.”
Obama said the US would have vetoed anything that didn’t contain a “balanced statement” condemning what it sees as Israeli and Palestinian missteps, and said the resolution was the “best move” for peace.
“I did believe it was important to send a signal and to lift up the facts that so often get buried under other news in terms of what is happening with settlements in the West Bank,” he said. “I have an obligation to do what I think is right.”
The president said he believed the US’s abstention “was the best move for peace.” Resolution 2334 was consistent with Washington’s position on West Bank settlements, and it was “patently false” that it was in any way remarkable in that respect, he said.
Obama was asked whether he had more surprises up his sleeve or whether Netanyahu could sleep soundly until January 20. “Well, I think there’s an interesting question as to whether he’ll sleep better after January 20,” Obama responded dryly, intimating that relations between Netanyahu and incoming president Trump might not be as trouble-free as some in the Israeli leadership may be anticipating.
Obama said his administration would veto any resolution that predetermined the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “A resolution that outlines [a] final status, that would not be appropriate,” he said. “Because the truth is this won’t get solved unless the Israeli people and Palestinian people want to solve it.”
As he has in the past when faced with criticism on Israel, Obama said he had Israel’s best interests in mind and had always ensured Israel’s security, and that “established traditions of the Zionist movement in Israel are consistent with the values that I have tried to live by.” He added later that even if Israel continues expanding settlements, robust support for Israel in Congress means “the United States will still be there” as an ally.
Obama also said his administration had consistently pressed the Palestinian leadership to end violence against Israelis.
“This idea that somehow we haven’t been tough on the Palestinians: We are constantly hectoring the Palestinians about an end to incitement, about an end to to violence,” he said.
He warned that the “prospects for peace are fading away… in small increments,” in part because of the West Banks settlements eroding the possibility of a viable future Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one.
Pushed by Dayan, the US president acknowledged a difference between East Jerusalem, settlement blocs, and isolated settlements in the West Bank.
“All of us would recognize that in any final resolution, there are portions of what would be considered currently as occupied territory that would become part of Israel,” he said. “That’s when strategic depth comes in, that’s when historical issues like the Western Wall would come into play.”
“Even Israel acknowledges the status of East Jerusalem is a live issue in negotiations,” he added.
In the half-hour interview, Obama stood by his decisions and defended his legacy, saying that while he had “deep disagreements” with Netanyahu “on certain issues,” he was a steadfast supporter of Israel.
“Our commitment to Israel’s security has been unwavering,” the president asserted.
“I will do everything necessary to make sure Israel is in a position of strength, that it can defend itself by itself,” he said. “Because of that strength, then, you are in a position to take some risks for peace. Not stupid risks, not reckless risks, but some risks.”
Obama and Netanyahu had an often acrimonious relationship, clashing over settlement building, peace talks and the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The agreement, negotiated between Iran and six world powers led by the US, freezes Iran’s nuclear activities in return for a lifting of sanctions.
Netanyahu lambasted the deal as a capitulation to Iran, including in a controversial speech before Congress in 2015. But Obama insisted that Israeli officials agree the pact has helped Israel.
“Israeli military and intelligence teams say this deal works to achieve the narrow goal that we set out,” Obama said. “I was called someone who was betraying Israeli interests, and we actually have proof now, because we can take a look, and lo and behold, my tough-minded negotiation … has resulted in a much lower possibility of one of Israel’s most powerful enemies obtaining a weapon that would threaten Israel’s existence.”
Asked if Netanyahu could look forward to having a friend in the White House when Trump comes to power, Obama said: “He had a good friend, just Bibi did not always recognize it.”
“He had a good friend in the last eight years,” Obama added.
Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon responded to the Obama interview by saying that “Despite the close cooperation between Israel and the United States during the years of the Obama administration, it is unfortunate that this presidency will be remembered for the disturbing sight of the Security Council members applauding as the anti-Israel resolution was adopted.
“The fact that Israel was left on its own in the Security Council by President Obama cannot be changed.”
Times of Israel staff, JTA and Agencies contributed to this report.