Obama: US must criticize Israel if it is to defend it
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Obama: US must criticize Israel if it is to defend it

In Atlantic interview, president lashes Netanyahu over Election Day comments, suggests anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, insists Iranian regime is 'rational' about its survival

US President Barack Obama clapping his hands in New London, Connecticut, on May 20, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM)
US President Barack Obama clapping his hands in New London, Connecticut, on May 20, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM)

President Barack Obama defended his fierce criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the March elections in Israel, arguing that such criticism lends him credibility when defending the Jewish state in international arenas, and rejected attempts to equate his censure of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism.

Obama, in a wide-ranging interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, said that his criticism of Netanyahu, who on election day warned in a frantic video that Israel’s Arab citizens were streaming to the polls “in droves,” related to the very “nature of the friendship between the United States and Israel.” He also said that comments such as Netanyahu’s have “foreign-policy consequences.”

That criticism, which rattled the already fraught relationship between the two governments, was due to Netanyahu straying from “the very language of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which explicitly states that all people regardless of race or religion are full participants in the democracy,” said Obama, who also took Netanyahu to task for asserting in the run-up to the election that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch.

Both statements by the prime minister appeared geared to rally right-wing voters, although the comment about Arab voters was also widely criticized as racist. Days after the comments were made, the prime minister apologized while speaking to a group of representatives of the Arab community who he invited to his office.

Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)
Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015 (screen capture: YouTube)

Obama at the time slammed Netanyahu for his remarks, saying they were “contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions,” and that it “erodes the name of democracy in the country.”

“When something like that happens, that has foreign-policy consequences, and precisely because we’re so close to Israel, for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on these issues,” he told Goldberg on Tuesday; the interview was published Thursday.

“And when I am then required to come to Israel’s defense internationally, when there is anti-Semitism out there, when there is anti-Israeli policy that is based not on the particulars of the Palestinian cause but based simply on hostility, I have to make sure that I am entirely credible in speaking out against those things, and that requires me then to also be honest with friends about how I view these issues.

“My hope is that over time [the] debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if, if all we are talking about is based from fear,” he said.

Obama conjured many of Israel’s most iconic figures and symbols to stress his long-standing support and admiration for the Jewish state.

“I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of… kibbutzim and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it.”

According to the president, the Jewish state was founded on lessons learned from hardships and persecution, which were applied to how it governs and treats others. Those values, he claimed, had helped nurture his own political beliefs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with US president Barack Obama at the White House, October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with US president Barack Obama at the White House, October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Despite his frayed relations with Netanyahu, Obama claimed the Jewish community in the US has been consistently supportive of his approach, expressing satisfaction with the 70-percent support he garnered among Jews in his last election victory in 2012.

Sympathizing with Jewish concerns worldwide over “the emergence of a more overt and dangerous anti-Semitism,” Obama acknowledged that such hatred would “make people fearful.”

But he also warned against equating support of the Jewish community with unconditional support of Israel.

“There has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government,” he said, alluding to his Republican critics.

“If you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates [to them that] you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish.”

He said he “completely rejects” the notion that disagreeing publicly with the Israeli government made one anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish.

Iran ‘rational’ about survival

Goldberg asked Obama if the fact that the Iranian regime is anti-Semitic, and thus possessed of a warped view of the way the world works, shouldn’t preclude a negotiating strategy that treats Tehran as a rational player. But the president replied that the regime’s survival instinct is more powerful than other calculations, including its hatred of Jews and imperialist aspirations.

“Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival,” he said. “It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations.”

Tehran, he continued, won’t make irrational decisions — an apparent reference to the regime breaking away to a nuclear weapon or attacking another country — that would threaten its very survival.

“What we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have,” he said.

“That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country.”

Representatives from world powers and Iran posing prior to the announcement of an agreement on Iran nuclear talks at the The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, April 2, 2015.  (AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI)
Representatives from world powers and Iran posing prior to the announcement of an agreement on Iran nuclear talks at the The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, April 2, 2015. (AFP/FABRICE COFFRINI)

Obama said that were Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon despite the emerging deal with the US and other world powers, it would have his “name” on it and be a sign of personal failure.

“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”

‘US not losing against Islamic State’

Also in the interview, Obama described the loss of key Iraqi territory to the Islamic State group as a tactical setback, while insisting that the war against the jihadist group is not being lost.

“I don’t think we’re losing,” he said, days after the Iraqi city of Ramadi was overrun. “There’s no doubt there was a tactical setback, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a very long time.”

Since August 2014, on Obama’s orders, a US-led coalition has hit more than 6,000 targets in Iraq and Syria with airstrikes, with the aim of degrading the Islamic State group.

Illustrative photo of men holding up an Islamic State flag on July 18, 2014. (AFP/Tauseef Mustafa)
Illustrative photo of men holding up an Islamic State flag on July 18, 2014. (AFP/Tauseef Mustafa)

Obama has refused to return US combat troops to Iraq, following a long brutal war after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

But the rout in Ramadi has called into question US strategy and the credibility of Iraq’s central government.

Obama blamed it on a lack of training and reinforcement of Iraq’s own security forces.

“They have been there essentially for a year without sufficient reinforcements,” he said. “But it is indicative that the training of Iraqi security forces, the fortifications, the command-and-control systems are not happening fast enough in Anbar, in the Sunni parts of the country.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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