The Cable

Obama Doubles Down on Criticism of Netanyahu and Israel’s Politics of ‘Fear’

President Barack Obama doubled down on criticisms of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an interview with an Israeli television station.


The relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been chilly for years. But Netanyahu’s decision to use a joint address to Congress to lobby against the nuclear deal with Iran at the invitation of Republican lawmakers, his seeming abandonment of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the anti-Arab statements he made in the run-up to Israel’s March elections has turned them downright frigid.

Making little attempt to hide his disdain for Netanyahu, Obama has threatened to break with decades of American policy and give the United Nations a more active role in the peace process, while senior White House officials have publicly rebuked the Israeli leader for using “divisive” language, including warnings of Israeli Arabs flooding to polling stations. The prime minister tried to walk those comments back after he secured office, insisting he was still open to a Palestinian state if conditions were right, but Obama wasn’t having it.

Those hoping for a change of heart from the president should prepare to be disappointed (the opposite, of course, holds true for those who like Obama’s hardline stance towards Jerusalem). In an interview with the Israeli television station Channel 2, Obama doubled down on his criticism of Netanyahu and refused to take the prospect of greater U.N. involvement off the table, comments that are likely to make some in Israel very nervous.

Here’s a sampling, based on the official White House transcript of Obama’s talk with Israeli journalist Ilana Dayan.

On Netanyahu’s belief peace is “naive”: “I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody who’s predisposed to think of security first; to think perhaps that peace is naïve; to see the worst possibilities as opposed to the best possibilities in Arab partners or Palestinian partners.”

“And so I do think that, right now, those politics and those fears are driving the government’s response. And, I understand it. But my argument has been — directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu and I think publicly — is that what may seem wise and prudent in the short term can actually end up being unwise over the long term.”

On the possibility of Israelis abandoning their values: “What I think Israel also has to be concerned about, although it’s a long-term concern, is that if the status quo is not resolved, then, because of demographics, because of the pressures and the frustrations that are going to exist in the West Bank and certainly already exist in Gaza — that over time, Israel is going to have a choice about the nature of the Israeli state and its character. And if it loses its essential values that are enshrined in its declaration of independence, I think that is something that has to be guarded against as well.”

Later in the interview: “So the issue here is not let’s be naïve and let’s assume the best; the issue is how, in a very difficult situation, where Israel has very real enemies, should it approach the imperative, the necessity to resolve this issue. Because if it does not, then the long-term trends are very dangerous for Israel.”

“In some cases — for example, around issues like renditions and torture — we lost our values. And it’s taken a long time to rebuild those. So I am just as self-critical about what I and U.S. government officials have to do in order for us to preserve what’s best in us. But I would respectfully suggest that Israel has to do that same self-reflection, because if it doesn’t, there are things that you can lose that don’t just involve rockets.”

On taking the peace process to the U.N.: “Well, when I said after the election that we would have to evaluate our policy, I was referring to something very specific, and that is how we approach defending Israel on the international stage around the Palestinian issue. So in terms of what the United States provides to Israel, the most important thing we provide — security and intelligence and military assistance — that doesn’t go away, because that is part of the commitment, the solemn commitment that I’ve made with respect to Israel’s security. And that’s something I feel very deeply and that’s not something that’s conditioned on any particular policy.”

“But the practical consequence that I refer to — let’s be very specific — if there are additional resolutions introduced in the United Nations, up until this point, we have pushed away against European efforts, for example, or other efforts because we’ve said, the only way this gets resolved is if the two parties work together.”

Later in the interview: “If there are additional resolutions introduced in the United Nations, up until this point, we have pushed away against European efforts, for example, or other efforts because we’ve said, the only way this gets resolved is if the two parties work together.”

On the possibility of Israel bombing Iran without consulting with the White House: “I won’t speculate on that. What I can say is — to the Israeli people — I understand your concerns and I understand your fears. But what is the worst scenario is the path that we’re currently on in which there’s no nuclear resolution, and ultimately, we have no way to verify whether Iran has a weapon or not.”

“Sanctions won’t do it. A military solution is temporary. The deal that we’re negotiating potentially takes a nuclear weapon off the table for 20 years.”

On Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress: “I think it’s fair to say that if I showed up at the Knesset without checking with the Prime Minister first, if I had negotiated with Mr. Herzog — (laughter) — that there would be a sense of some protocols that had been breached.” Obama is referring to Isaac Herzog, who challenged Netanyahu in the March elections.

On his personal relationship with Bibi: “I will tell you this. When I’m with Bibi, we have good conversations. They’re tough, they’re forceful, we disagree, but I enjoy jousting with him, I do.”

Later in the interview: “There’s no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu and I come from different political traditions and have different orientations. But part of what’s been valuable about the U.S.-Israeli relationship is it has — it is deeper than any individual leader or any particular government. That won’t change.”

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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