Obama's Message to Netanyahu on Peace With Palestinians: Time Is Running Out

In unusually blunt interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on eve of meeting with prime minister in Washington, U.S. president asks whether Netanyahu is ready to 'resign himself to permanent occupation of West Bank.'

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

WASHINGTON – In unusually blunt language, U.S. President Barack Obama said his message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday will be that time is running out for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians. Obama's remarks came in an interview with Bloomberg news agency journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that was published Sunday night.

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Goldberg wrote that Obama was more blunt and direct than ever regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The president said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was the most moderate leader Israel would encounter in the foreseeable future. Obama, according to Goldberg, gave the impression that Netanyahu was the one who had to be flexible in order to advance the peace talks.

"There comes a point where you can't manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices," Obama said. "Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel's traditions?"

Netanyahu was due to land in Washington on Sunday night. He is scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Monday morning prior to his meeting with the president. After meeting with Obama, Netanyahu is to meet with Vice President Joe Biden. On Tuesday morning he is due to address the annual convention of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, after which he will fly to Los Angeles.

Before taking off for Washington, Netanyahu tried to relay a harsh message on his upcoming meeting with the U.S. president: "I'll stand firm on the State of Israel's crucial interests, first and foremost the security of the citizens of Israel," he said. "In recent years, the State of Israel has been subject to pressures, but we have pushed through the storm and the regional tempest, and that's how it will continue to be."

'If not now, when?'

In an hour-long interview conducted with Goldberg at the White House on Thursday, Obama said his question to Netanyahu regarding the Palestinians will be, "If not now, when?" Another will be: "And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?"

Obama stressed during the interview that if Netanyahu "does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach." He added: "It's hard to come up with one that's plausible."

During the interview Obama spoke out strongly against the Netanyahu government's settlement policy and warned of the consequences that failure in the peace negotiations Israel's international standing, and on the United States' ability to protect Israel in the institutions of the UN.

"The U.S.' friendship with Israel is undying," said Obama, but added: “If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction - and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” Obama said. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

During the interview, Obama expressed his support for Secretary of State John Kerry and his efforts to reach a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry reports to him almost once a week on the progress in the talks and sometimes asks for instructions, Obama said. He noted that he has spoken little on the subject in recent months since he thinks it would make Kerry's mission even more difficult.

"We are coming to a point, though, over the next couple of months where the parties are going to have to make some decisions about how they move forward. And my hope and expectation is, despite the incredible political challenges, that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas are able to reach past their differences and arrive at a framework that can move us to peace," said Obama.

Relating to the warnings Kerry made on the rising threat of a boycott against Israel, Obama said: "With each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept -- in part because of changes in demographics; in part because of what's been happening with settlements; in part because Abbas is getting older, and I think nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue. We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like."

The president also said he is convinced that would be willing to recognize Israel's right to exist and to provide the security arrangements Israel requires. "For us not to seize that opportunity would be a mistake," he said.

"We don’t know exactly what would happen. What we know is that it gets harder by the day. What we also know is that Israel has become more isolated internationally. We had to stand up in the Security Council in ways that 20 years ago would have involved far more European support, far more support from other parts of the world when it comes to Israel’s position. And that’s a reflection of a genuine sense on the part of a lot of countries out there that this issue continues to fester, is not getting resolved, and that nobody is willing to take the leap to bring it to closure," said Obama. "And as long as those security needs were met, then testing Abbas ends up being the right thing to do."

Speaking about his relationship with Netanyahu, Obama praised the prime minister, saying: "What is absolutely true is Prime Minister Netanyahu is smart. He is tough. He is a great communicator. He is obviously a very skilled politician. And I take him at his word when he says that he sees the necessity of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think he genuinely believes that."

As to the political sensitivity of the Palestinian issue in Israel, he said: "I also think that politics in Israel around this issue are very difficult. You have the chaos that’s been swirling around the Middle East. People look at what's happening in Syria. They look at what’s happening in Lebanon. Obviously, they look at what’s happening in Gaza. And understandably a lot of people ask themselves, 'Can we afford to have potential chaos at our borders, so close to our cities?' So he is dealing with all of that, and I get that."

"What I’ve said to him privately is the same thing that I say publicly, which is the situation will not improve or resolve itself. This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away. There are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on. There are going to be more Arab-Israelis, not fewer Arab-Israelis, as time goes on," said Obama.

"And for Bibi [Netanyahu] to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize this moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give to future generations of Israelis. But it’s hard. And as somebody who occupies a fairly tough job himself, I’m always sympathetic to somebody else’s politics," he said.

Obama also said he has yet to hear a convincing vision of how Israel can remain a Jewish and democratic state without a peace agreement with the Palestinians: "Nobody has presented me a credible scenario."

"The only thing that I’ve heard is, 'We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we'll build settlements where we can. And where there are problems in the West Bank, we will deal with them forcefully. We’ll cooperate or co-opt the Palestinian Authority." And yet, at no point do you ever see an actual resolution to the problem."

"And so if I’m thinking about the prime minister of Israel, I’m not somebody who believes that it’s just a matter of changing your mind and suddenly everything goes smoothly. But I believe that Bibi is strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it. "

Speaking about the situation in the world today, Obama said "where international cooperation is needed in order to deal with those threats, the absence of international goodwill makes you less safe. The condemnation of the international community can translate into a lack of cooperation when it comes to key security interests. It means reduced influence for us, the United States, in issues that are of interest to Israel. It’s survivable, but it is not preferable."

Obama: We can stop Iran from achieving nukes

Obama rejected the claim that his foreign policy – including his decision to attack in Syria in response to the Assad's use of chemical weapons - broadcasts weakness. He told Goldberg that it was his threats of attack that convinced Assad to give up his chemical weapons, and that sparked Iran and Russia to put pressure on the Syrian leader to do so.

Obama said he thinks Iran is taking seriously the possibility the United States could attack its nuclear facilities if the talks with the P5 + 1 powers fail: " We have a high degree of confidence that when they look at 35,000 U.S. military personnel in the region that are engaged in constant training exercises under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past, that they should take my statements seriously. And the American people should as well, and the Israelis should as well, and the Saudis should as well."

"Now, that does not mean that that is my preferred course of action. So let’s just be very clear here. There are always consequences to military action that are unpredictable and can spin out of control, and even if perfectly executed carry great costs. So if we can resolve this issue diplomatically, we absolutely should."

Obama added that he believes the ongoing negotiations could indeed stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons: "And if we have any chance to make sure that Iran does not have nuclear weapons, if we have any chance to render their breakout capacity nonexistent, or so minimal that we can handle it, then we’ve got to pursue that path. And that has been my argument with Prime Minister Netanyahu; that has been my argument with members of Congress who have been interested in imposing new sanctions. My simple point has been, we lose nothing by testing this out."

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during the Democratic Issues Conference February 14, 2014 in Cambridge, Maryland.Credit: AFP

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