Israel can expect to face international isolation and possible sanctions from countries and companies across the world if Benjamin Netanyahu fails to endorse a framework agreement with the Palestinians, US President Barack Obama cautioned on Sunday ahead of a meeting with the Israeli prime minister.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Obama stressed that time was running out for Israel to achieve a peace deal, and added that he believed Netanyahu had the capacity to rally Israel’s citizens behind an agreement.
But if Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach,” Obama said.
“There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” he said.
The president went on to stress that he would convey to Netanyahu, in the spirit of the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder, that the prime minister could lead Israel toward peace if he chose to do so.
“If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” Obama said.
The president went on to condemn in no uncertain terms Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank, and said that though his allegiance to the Jewish state was permanent, building settlements across the Green Line was counterproductive and would make it extremely difficult for the US to defend Israel from painful repercussions in the international community.
“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said.
The president added that Israel must come to a decision over its future character and weigh whether its current policies are conducive to achieving its true aspirations.
“Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank?” he inquired of the Israeli public.
“Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?” he asked.
Obama further stated that in his opinion, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve” the conflict.
“We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like,” he added.
Asked whether he felt Abbas was sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist, the president replied that he was sure that was the case.
“I think that this is a rare quality not just within the Palestinian territories, but in the Middle East generally,” Obama said of the Palestinian leader. “For us not to seize that opportunity would be a mistake.”
Netanyahu left for Washington Sunday for talks about the US-led peace process and nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran.
Although Netanyahu would like the conversation with Obama to focus primarily on Iran, the White House appears to have a different agenda.
“Obama will press him to agree to a framework for a conclusive round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that is being drafted by Secretary of State John Kerry,” The New York Times quoted senior US officials as saying last week.
Direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which began last July with the goal of reaching a deal within nine months, have made no visible progress.
Kerry is now focused on getting the two sides to agree on a framework proposal which would extend the deadline until the year’s end.
Although the document has not yet been made public, it is understood to be a non-binding proposal laying out guidelines for negotiating the central issues of the conflict, such as borders, security, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The proposal, or its outline, is likely to be presented to Netanyahu this week and to Abbas on March 17 when he meets Obama at the White House.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.