Obama: Netanyahu’s anti-Arab remarks risk eroding Israeli democracy

President dismayed by PM’s Arabs ‘voting ‘in droves’ comment, says he has to rethink policy given Netanyahu’s ruling out of Palestinian statehood

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama end a joint press conference in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama end a joint press conference in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his first public comments since Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory, President Barack Obama castigated the prime minister’s election day remark about Arabs voting in droves, and confirmed that the US would re-evaluate its stance on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in light of Netanyahu’s pre-election rejection of Palestinian statehood.

Although Netanyahu later backtracked, and reiterated a commitment in principle to a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” Obama told The Huffington Post in an interview published Saturday that his administration is now operating under the assumption that Netanyahu does not envision the creation of a Palestinian state.

“We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership,” Obama said, “and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”

In the interview, the president promised to maintain cooperation with the Israeli government on military and intelligence operations, but would not say whether the US would continue to block Palestinian efforts to secure statehood via the United Nations. He said he had told the Likud leader when they spoke on Thursday, “It is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.”

“We’re going to make sure, regardless of disagreements we have on policy, that our military and intelligence cooperation to keep the Israeli people safe continues and that cooperation also helps the American people stay safe,” Obama said. “But we are going to continue to insist that from our point of view, the status quo is unsustainable, and that while taking into complete account Israel’s security, we can’t just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements, that’s not a recipe for stability in the region.”

Israel’s Channel 10 reported Friday, quoting unnamed Israeli sources, that Obama had left Netanyahu with the impression that the US was now going to abandon Israel at the UN.

Obama reserved his deepest discomfort for Netanyahu’s election day warning that Arab Israeli voters were going to the polls “in droves,” the Huffington Post said, and expressed concern about the impact of that sort of rhetoric on Israeli democracy.

“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions. That although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly,” the president said. “And I think that that is what’s best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the name of democracy in the country.”

Obama said he did not think Netanyahu’s victory would have any impact on the ongoing US-led negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, despite the Israeli leader’s outspoken opposition to the emerging deal. He acknowledged that “Iran has made vile comments, anti-Semitic comments, comments about the destruction of Israel.”

In the talks, Obama said, the Iranians “have not yet made the kind of concessions that are I think going to be needed for a final deal to get done. But they have moved, and so there’s the possibility.”

Netanyahu and Obama, at the UN last September. (photo credit: APphoto/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama at the UN, September 2012 (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Obama’s supposed congratulatory call to Netanyahu on Thursday, two days after the Likud leader triumphed in Israel’s elections, was actually a bitter 30-minute conversation, Israel’s two main TV news stations reported Friday night.

Quoting unnamed Israeli sources, they said the president made clear he didn’t believe Netanyahu was genuinely supportive of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, and that he indicated that the US would no longer automatically support Israel at the United Nations.

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