U.S. President Barack Obama answered questions regarding convicted-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard on Thursday, in an interview with Israel's Channel 2. Obama did not reject outright the possibility that Pollard would be released, but stressed that he wanted to follow the basic procedures of the American justice system. "There is a justice system that allows for periodic review [of the sentence] and the potential for him ultimately being released," he said.
Obama was probably referring to the fact that Pollard will be eligible for parole in 2015. "The way I, as President, function here is to try to make sure that I'm following the basic procedures and rules…So I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately. But what I am going to be doing is to make sure that he – like every other American who has been sentenced – is accorded the same kinds of review and same examination of the equities that any other individual would provide," he said.
During the interview, Obama denied that he has a strained relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Throughout the interview with Israel's Channel 2, Obama made sure to refer to Netanyahu by his nickname "Bibi," and noted that he had met with him more times than with any other world leader.
"We've got a terrific businesslike relationship," said Obama. "He is very blunt with me about his views on issues and I'm very blunt with him about my views on issues.
The U.S. president rejected the numerous media reports over the last four years that he had criticized Netanyahu in private conversations, saying: "Well, I think it's always fun for the media to talk about this stuff…And I think it's fun for political pundits to write about." Obama stressed that "I think you should probably take that [the reports] with a grain of salt." However, Obama acknowledged that there had been strains over the past four years between both governments that stemmed from the different views held by the "center-left government" in the United States in contrast to "a more conservative government in Israel." He said that they were "not necessarily between myself and the Prime Minister, but sometimes between our governments in terms of how we think certain issues should be pursued."
During the interview, Obama continued to lower expectations with respect to the extent of American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the near future. He said that the purpose of his visit in Israel is primarily to listen to what Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) have to say.
"I intend to meet with Fayyad and Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas], and to hear from them …What is their vision? Where do they think they should go?" Obama said.
The U.S. president also emphasized his belief that achieving a peace agreement is in the interest of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people. He stressed that changes in the Arab world have made it harder for Israel to continue to count on individual rulers: "because of the Arab Spring you now have a situation in which Israel can't count on just a few autocrats holding everything together in the neighborhood… Israel has an interest in being able to speak to the Arab street."
"To Abu Mazen, I will say that trying to unilaterally go to, for example, the United Nations and do an end-run around Israel is not going to be successful," Obama said. "To Bibi, I would suggest to him that he should have an interest in strengthening the moderate leadership inside of the Palestinian Authority – so, for example, making sure that issues like settlements are viewed through the lens of, is this making it harder or easier for Palestinian moderates to sit down at the table."
When asked whether he wanted Israel to freeze settlement construction in order to allow the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians, Obama avoided giving a direct answer. "I think we're past the point where we should be even talking about preconditions and steps and sequences," he said.
"Everybody knows what's going to be involved here in setting up two states, side by side, living in peace and security. It's going to involve the Palestinians feeling like they've actually got a land of their own, an autonomy, and the capacity to govern and to set up businesses and to prosper, that they have self-determination. And on the part of the Israelis, it's going to require them having confidence that that doesn't come at the price of Israeli security."
Obama also said that "Iran possessing a nuclear weapon is a red line" for his administration.
Obama claimed he will tell Netanyahu, whom he is due to meet in Jerusalem next week, that if diplomatic efforts to thwart the Iranian nuclear program fail, he is ready to use other means prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
"I have been crystal clear about my position on Iran possessing a nuclear weapon - that is a red line for us", Obama said. "It’s something that would not only be dangerous for Israel but would be dangerous for the world [and would] be dangerous for U.S. national security interests".
Obama said the assessment of the American intelligence community is that Iran would need "over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon," if they decide to do so.
The U.S. president edged slightly closer to Netanyahu's position on Iran when he acknowledged that his basic position is that "the issue of Iran’s nuclear capability" has implications for American national security interests and not only Israel's security.
Obama made it clear he still wants to give diplomacy a chance and that the window for a nuclear deal is still open, although not indefinitely. "It is in all of our interests - Israel, the United States, the world and Iran’s - if we can resolve this diplomatically", he said. "But obviously, we don’t want to cut it too close".
The U.S. president also said that the international sanctions have damaged the Iranian economy but still haven’t convinced the regime to change course regarding the nuclear program.
"I do think that they’re recognizing that there is a severe cost for them to continue on the path that they’re on, and that there’s another door open", Obama said. "So what I’m consulting with Bibi, my message to him will be the same as before: If we can resolve it diplomatically, that’s a more lasting solution, but if not, I continue to keep all options on the table."
Obama was asked in the interview if he would be willing to order a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations.
"When I say that all options are on the table, all options are on the table", he said. "The United States obviously has significant capabilities … So when I say that we intend to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, that we’re going to pursue all avenues to make sure that that does not happen."
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