U.S. President Barack Obama told Channel 2 News on Wednesday that he believed Israel would not try to surprise the U.S. with a unilateral attack on Iran.
In an interview aired Thursday evening, Obama was asked whether he was concerned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would try to attack Iran without clearing the move with the U.S., to which the president replied "I think the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is sufficiently strong that neither of us try to surprise each other, but we try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern."
Obama spoke to Channel 2's Yonit Levy one day after what he described as an "excellent" meeting with Netanyahu at the White House. The two leaders met alone for about 90 minutes Tuesday evening, during which time they discussed the peace process with the Palestinians, the contested Iranian nuclear program, and the strategic understandings between their two countries on Tehran's efforts to achieve nuclear capabilities.
Netanyahu promised Obama during their meeting that Israel would undertake confidence-building measures toward the Palestinian Authority in the coming days and weeks. These steps are likely to include the transfer of responsibility over more parts of the West Bank over to PA security forces.
During the interview Wednesday, when confronted with the anxiety that some Israelis feel toward him, Obama said that "some of it may just be the fact that my middle name is Hussein, and that creates suspicion."
"Ironically, I've got a Chief of Staff named Rahm Israel Emmanuel. My top political advisor is somebody who is a descendent of Holocaust survivors. My closeness to the Jewish American community was probably what propelled me to the U.S. Senate," Obama said.
"I think that sometimes, particularly in the Middle East, there's the feeling of the friend of my enemy must be my enemy, and the truth of the matter is that my outreach to the Muslim community is designed precisely to reduce the antagonism and the dangers posed by a hostile Muslim world to Israel and to the West," Obama went on to say.
Obama added that he believed a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians could be achieved within his current term. "I think [Netanyahu] understands we've got a fairly narrow window of opportunity… We probably won’t have a better opportunity than we have right now. And that has to be seized. It’s going to be difficult."
The American President entirely sidestepped the question of whether the U.S. would pressure Israel to extend a current 10-month moratorium on construction in West Bank settlements, failing to give a clear answer. The moratorium is set to expire in September, and Netanyahu has announced that he would not extend the timeframe. The U.S., however, views continued Israeli settlement construction as a serious obstacle to peace efforts.
When asked whether he thought Netanyahu was the right man to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians, the U.S. President said that "I think Prime Minister Netanyahu may be very well positioned to bring this about," adding that Israel will have to overcome many hurdles in order to affect the change required to "secure Israel for another 60 years"
In a separate interview with another Israeli media outlet, Obama proclaimed that he was not "blindly optimistic" regarding the chances of a Middle East peace agreement.
Israel is right to be skeptical about the peace process, he said in another yet-to-be-aired interview that was taped on Wednesday. He noted during the interview that many people thought the founding of Israel was impossible, so its very existence should be "a great source of hope."
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Netanyahu told U.S. Jewish leaders that direct Palestinian-Israeli talks would begin "very soon", but warned that they would be "very, very tough."
Netanyahu told his cabinet earlier this week before flying to Washington that the time had come for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to prepare to meet directly with the Israelis, as it was the only way to advance peace.
Israelis and Palestinians have been holding indirect talks mediated by Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell. Aides to Obama sounded a hopeful tone regarding the negotiations last week, telling reporters that the shuttle diplomacy between the two sides had paid off and the gaps have narrowed.
At a meeting with representatives of Jewish organizations at the Plaza Hotel late Wednesday, Netanyahu discussed the efforts to promote Middle East peace. "This is going to be a very, very tough negotiation," he said, adding "the sooner the better."
"Direct negotiations must begin right away, and we think that they will," he said.
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