Obama: Netanyahu's anti-Arab Remarks Likely to Have Foreign Policy Consequences

President says because U.S. is close to Israel, Oval Office had to speak up about Israeli PM's Election Day comments lest it lose credibility.

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference in Jerusalem, March 2013.Credit: Yonatan Zindel/Flash 90
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-Arab remarks on Election Day has "foreign-policy consequences," The Atlantic reported on Thursday.

The U.S. president made it clear during the interview with the American periodical on Tuesday that Netanyahu's portrayal of Arab voters as "an invading force that might vote" is contrary to the very language of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which explicitly states that all people regardless of race or religion are full participants in the democracy."

"When something like that happens, that has foreign policy consequences, and precisely because we’re so close to Israel, for us to simply stand there and say nothing would have meant that this office, the Oval Office, lost credibility when it came to speaking out on these issues,” he said.

Obama remarked in the interview that despite the confrontations with Netanyahu over the past number of years, most of the American Jewish community still voted for him in the 2012 presidential election.

"What I also think is that there has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government," he said. "So if you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish. If you express compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth, who are dealing with checkpoints or restrictions on their ability to travel, then you are suspect in terms of your support of Israel. If you are willing to get into public disagreements with the Israeli government, then the notion is that you are being anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish. I completely reject that."

During the Atlantic interview, Obama expressed deep concern with the direction Israel has been heading, especially in everything regarding its democratic values. Obama remarked that "precisely because" he cares so much about Israel and the Jewish people, "I feel obliged to speak honestly and truthfully about what I think will be most likely to lead to long-term security, and will best position us to continue to combat anti-Semitism, and I make no apologies for that precisely because I am secure and confident about how deeply I care about Israel and the Jewish people."

Obama stressed that he sees as a moral obligation the defense of Israel and standing up for its right to exist, especially because of the lessons of the 20th century.

"And so, to me, being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish is part and parcel with the values that I've been fighting for since I was politically conscious and started getting involved in politics," Obama said to the Atlantic. "There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind."

On the other hand, he said that it is also true that by extension he has "to show that same kind of regard to other peoples. And I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values—its founding principles—that it has to care about those Palestinian kids."

He recalled that when he spoke in Jerusalem, "the biggest applause that I got was when I spoke about those kids I had visited in Ramallah, and I said to an Israeli audience that it is profoundly Jewish, it is profoundly consistent with Israel’s traditions to care about them. And they agreed."

"So if that’s not translated into policy—if we’re not willing to take risks on behalf of those values—then those principles become empty words, and in fact, in my mind, it makes it more difficult for us to continue to promote those values when it comes to protecting Israel internationally," he told the Atlantic.

The American president added that when he defends Israel on the international stage, especially against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel policies that are based on hostility rather than "the particulars of the Palestinian cause" he needs credibility.

Therefore, he is required to "honest with friends about how I view these issues," he remarked. "Now that makes, understandably, folks both in Israel and here in the United States uncomfortable," he noted.

"But the one argument that I very much have been concerned about, and it has gotten stronger over the last 10 years ... it’s less overt than the arguments that a Sheldon Adelson makes, but in some ways can be just as pernicious, is this argument that there should not be disagreements in public," the president added.

Obama noted that he is criticized for criticizing Israel, even though farm more contentious arguments are made in the cafes of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. He stressed, though, that the most important thing the U.S. can do to strengthen Israel's position is to tell the prime minister that achieving peace requires some risks.

"And the question you have to ask yourself then is: How do you weigh those risks against the risks of doing nothing and just perpetuating the status quo?" Obama said. "My argument is that the risks of doing nothing are far greater," he said. Ultimately, it is important for the Israeli people and the Israeli government to make its own decisions about what it needs to secure the people of that nation," he conceded.

“My hope is that over time [the] debate gets back on a path where there’s some semblance of hope and not simply fear, because it feels to me as if, if all we are talking about is based from fear,” Obama said. “Over the short term that may seem wise—cynicism always seems a little wise—but it may lead Israel down a path in which it’s very hard to protect itself [as] a Jewish-majority democracy."

Obama told the Atlantic that he grew up on the Israel of kibbutzim, Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir, "and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world."

He recalled that these values shaped him as a politician. He said he told a group of Jewish leaders he has high expectations for Israel, which he considers neither unrealistic nor stupid.

"I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium," he stressed. "The same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery. The same values that led to Nelson Mandela being freed and a multiracial democracy emerging in South Africa.the same values that lead us to speak out against anti-Semitism. I want Israel to embody these values because Israel is aligned with us in that fight for what I believe to be true. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t tough choices and there aren’t compromises. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to ask ourselves very tough questions about, in the short term, do we have to protect ourselves."

Obama remarked that despite his criticism of Netanyahu and his government's policy, he has constantly worked since entering the White House to ramp up military, security and intelligence aide to Israel. He said even his biggest critics in Israel admit as much. He noted that during the last American push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, he sent top American army officials to Israel to determine its security needs for a two-state era.

"So this isn’t an issue of being naive or unrealistic, but ultimately yes, I think there are certain values that the United States, at its best, exemplifies. I think there are certain values that Israel, and the Jewish tradition, at its best exemplifies," he said. "And I am willing to fight for those values."

According to Obama, he needs to be able to tell Israel he doesn't agree with a particular policy like the settlements, checkpoints and the Jewish nationality law. He said this is "entirely consistent with being supportive of the State of Israel and the Jewish people."

He added: "Now for someone in Israel, including the prime minister, to disagree with those policy positions—that’s OK too. And we can have a debate, and we can have an argument. But you can’t equate people of good will who are concerned about those issues with somebody who is hostile towards Israel."

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