Obama: Weakened Israel would be ‘failure’ for my presidency

In NY Times interview, president promises to stand by Israel if it is attacked, says it’s ‘personally difficult’ to have his commitment doubted

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US President Barack Obama said it would be a “moral” failure for his administration if Israel was weakened as a result of his policies. “I would consider it a failure on my part, a fundamental failure of my presidency, if on my watch or as a consequence of work that I’ve done, Israel was rendered more vulnerable,” Obama said in an interview conducted Saturday and published Sunday with veteran New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman.

He said he would consider it “not just a strategic failure, I think that would be a moral failure,” adding that no disagreements between Israel and the United States could break the two countries’ bond.

Obama also said that accusations that his administration is not doing all it can to ensure Israel’s security have made recent months a “hard period” for him personally.

“It has been personally difficult for me to hear… expressions that somehow… this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest — and the suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face,” he said.

The president appeared to be dampening rising criticism — in the wake of last week’s controversial framework nuclear deal with Iran, and his comments after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory — to the effect that he doesn’t take Israeli security concerns seriously, and that personal animus toward Netanyahu has been driving some policies.

Obama emphasized that he was willing to make commitments to give Iran and others in the Middle East “a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.” Two weeks after calling into question Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution, and suggesting the Israeli prime minister resorted to racism by referring to “droves” of Arab voters during the March 17 Israeli elections, Obama called Israel “a robust, rowdy democracy” in the interview.

“We share so much. We share blood, family,” said Obama. “And part of what has always made the US-Israeli relationship so special is that it has transcended party, and I think that has to be preserved. There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as… opposing Israel. There has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat, and I think the right way to do it is to recognize that as many commonalities as we have, there are going to be strategic differences. And I think that it is important for each side to respect the debate that takes place in the other country and not try to work just with one side.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks out against a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, April 03, 2015. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks out against a nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers, April 03, 2015. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Turning to the emerging long-term nuclear deal with Iran, Obama said that the Israeli people “have every right to be concerned about Iran. This is a regime that at the highest levels has expressed the desire to destroy Israel, that has denied the Holocaust, that has expressed venomous anti-Semitic ideas and is a big country with a big population and has a sophisticated military. So Israel is right to be concerned about Iran, and they should be absolutely concerned that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.”

But, said the president, a negotiated deal will be far more effective than a military strike in ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.

Obama also criticized Iran’s involvement in proxy wars around the region, and said that certain sanctions would remain in place because of those activities. Still, he expressed hope that Iran would become an “extremely successful regional power” that was a “responsible international player.”

Despite its support for terrorism, and its anti-Western rhetoric and actions, some of Iran’s mistrust of the West is justified by past US actions, Obama argued. “Part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam [Hussein]” during the “extremely brutal” Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Obama reserved criticism for Sunni Arab states as well, saying their biggest threats don’t come from Iran, but “from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” Figuring out how to help these countries fight terrorism “without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we ought to have.”

The president emphasized that America’s core interests “in the region are not oil, are not territorial… Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.”

Obama reiterated earlier in the weekend that the framework represented “a historic understanding” that if fully implemented would prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. Talks on a final deal are supposed to be completed by June 30.

Last Thursday, the P5+1 world powers and Iran reached a political framework for the deal in Switzerland, aiming to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Netanyahu has been a vociferous opponent of the deal, charging that it “paves the way” for a nuclear-armed Iran and threatens Israel’s very survival.

The commitments announced Thursday, if implemented, would substantially pare back some Iranian nuclear assets for a decade and restrict others for an additional five years. According to a US document listing those commitments, Tehran is ready to reduce its number of centrifuges, the machines that can spin uranium gas to levels used in nuclear warheads.

Of the nearly 20,000 centrifuges Iran now has installed or running at its main enrichment site, the country would be allowed to operate just over 5,000, and much of its enriched stockpiles would be neutralized. A planned reactor would be reconstructed so it can’t produce weapons-grade plutonium. Monitoring and inspections by the UN nuclear agency would be enhanced.

AP, AFP, and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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