Obama Recounts Confrontation With Netanyahu: I Live in the White House, I Know What I'm Talking About

U.S. president recalls clash in interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who writes Netanyahu was speaking in an arrogant manner and tried to shift discussion from the peace process to other issues.

Obama and Netanyahu during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 3, 2014.
Obama and Netanyahu during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 3, 2014. AP

In an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for the April issue of The Atlantic magazine, U.S. President Barack Obama recounted that a few years ago at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, the president had a sharp confrontation with the prime minister when Netanyahu delivered "something of a lecture" to the U.S. president over the dangers that Israel was facing.

Goldberg wrote that Obama felt that Netanyahu was speaking in an arrogant manner and trying to shift the discussion from the peace process to other issues. Obama said he cut of the prime minister's lecturing and took him to task. 

“Bibi, you have to understand something,” he said. “I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do,” Obama recounted in the interview.

Goldberg's article, which is based on six hours of interviews with the American president and with other senior officials in the Obama administration over the past four months, is an effort to survey the U.S. president's foreign policy doctrine since he entered the White House in January of 2009.

Goldberg's Atlantic piece relates to American policy toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran, in addition to Israel. In one of his interviews with Goldberg, Obama that he is committed to Israel's defense and that "it would be a moral failing for me as president of the United States" not to defend Israel, according to Goldberg's account.

On the other hand, Goldberg reports that Leon Panetta, the U.S. secretary of defense during Obama's first term as president, said Obama "questioned why the U.S. should maintain Israel’s so-called qualitative military edge, which grants it access to more sophisticated weapons systems than America’s Arab allies receive." Nevertheless, during his entire term as president, Obama has never taken steps to curb U.S. military aid to Israel and is currently offering to increase it. 

In one of the interviews, Obama reportedly explained what he expected to achieve in a high-profile policy speech that he gave in Cairo in June of 2009, a speech that Goldberg said was meant to "reset U.S. relations with the world's Muslims."  

“My argument was this," Obama said. "Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel.” The U.S. president elaborated: “We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion [in the Middle East, and] could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity."

Goldberg recounted that, in an interview with the president in late January, he asked Obama if he really intended to attack Iran's nuclear facilities if the regime in Tehran had attempted to obtain a nuclear weapon. Goldberg said the president interrupted: "I actually would have," he said, "if I saw them break out" to obtain an atomic bomb.

“Now, the argument that can’t be resolved, because it’s entirely situational, was what constitutes them getting” the bomb, Obama told Goldberg. “This was the argument I was having with Bibi Netanyahu.” And Goldberg added: "Netanyahu wanted Obama to prevent Iran from being capable of building a bomb, not merely from possessing a bomb."

“You were right to believe it,” the president said in reference to the intention to prevent Iranian access to the bomb. And then, Goldberg recounted, Obama made the point that "this was in the category of an American interest.”