There’s been much confusion about President Obama’s stance toward Israel following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election. Ink has been spilt and emails have been sent.
At the first opportunity following Bibi’s re-election, the Obama administration won praise from Israel for abstaining from the U.N. human rights session on Gaza.
That doesn’t sound like retaliation to me. Instead of relying on rumors, speculation, and the ability of our right-wing friends to read the President’s mind and divine his intentions, read for yourself what he said today at his press conference.
As pro-Israel advocates, we don’t have to agree with the administration. But we do have to understand what the President’s position really is. What follows is the entirety of President Obama’s comments regarding Israel from today’s press conference.
To a certain extent, the United States has to play with the cards it is dealt, and in this case, Bibi dealt the United States a bad hand. The question is whether President Obama’s response is reasonable given the circumstances–is President Obama doing what he can to isolate the problem and continue the strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel, or is he looking for excuses to shift U.S. policy? His actions at the U.N. yesterday are a clue, but read the transcript below and decide for yourself.
I’ve bolded what I think are the key statements, but I encourage you to read all of it. It’s not long, and then you’ll not only know President Obama’s position, but you’ll be able to evaluate the fairness and accuracy of the articles and emails that you have and will be reading.
Josh Letterman: You’ve made very clear that you’re not buying Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempts to walk back the comments that he made before the election, opposing Palestinian statehood, and that you’re reassessing your approach. What could Prime Minister Netanyahu do, if anything, in the short term to persuade you that he’s serious about Israeli-Palestinian peace and that he’s an honest broker that you could work with? Or is it too late to repair that relationship during your presidency? And is there any truth to allegations that Israel was spying on the Iran talks?
President Obama: Let me, first of all, address your second question about spying allegations. As a general rule, I don’t comment on intelligence matters in a big room full of reporters. (Laughter.) And I think I’ll continue that tradition.
But with respect to the possibility of an agreement that ensures that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, we have not just briefed Congress about the progress or lack thereof that’s being made, but we also brief the Israelis and our other partners in the region and around the world. And if, in fact, an agreement is arrived at that we feel confident will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it’s going to be there for everybody to see. And people are going to be able to lift up the hood and see what’s in there.
So I have confidence that if there’s an agreement, it’s going to be a good agreement that’s good for American security and Israeli security and the region’s security. And if it isn’t, then there probably won’t be an agreement. So there will be, I think, significant transparency in the whole process.
With respect to Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, I think it’s important to understand that the issue here is not what I believe, but it’s what the Palestinians and the parties in the negotiations and the Israeli people believe is possible. That’s the most important issue. I’ve said before and I’ll simply repeat: Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the election run-up, stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was Prime Minister. And I took him at his word that that’s what he meant, and I think that a lot of voters inside of Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally.
Afterwards, he pointed out that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But, of course, the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon. So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time — which was always the presumption.
I don’t think anybody ever envisioned in any peace agreement, certainly not one that Prime Minister Netanyahu would agree to, or that the Israeli people would agree to, that overnight you suddenly have a Palestinian state right next to Jerusalem and that Israel would not have a whole range of security conditions that had to be met, and that it would be phased in over a long period of time.
So the issue has never been, do you create a Palestinian state overnight. The question is, do you create a process and a framework that gives the Palestinians hope, the possibility, that down the road they have a secure state of their own, standing side-by-side with a secure, fully recognized Jewish state of Israel.
And I think — it’s not just my estimation — I think it’s hard to envision how that happens based on the Prime Minister’s statements. And so, when I said that we have to now do an evaluation of where we are, it’s not in reference to our commitment to Israel’s military edge in the region, Israel’s security, our intelligence cooperation, our military cooperation. That continues unabated. And I will continue to do whatever I need to do to make sure that our friends in Israel are safe. That’s what I’ve done since I’ve been President, and that’s not going to stop. And so the Israeli people need to know that.
But I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years. Because up until this point, the premise has been, both under Republican and Democratic administrations, that as different as it was, as challenging as it was, the possibility of two states living side by side in peace and security could marginalize more extreme elements, bring together folks at the center and with some common sense, and we could resolve what has been a vexing issue and one that is ultimately a threat to Israel as well.
And that possibility seems very dim. That may trigger, then, reactions by the Palestinians that, in turn, elicit counter-reactions by the Israelis. And that could end up leading to a downward spiral of relations that will be dangerous for everybody and bad for everybody.
So, bottom line, just to summarize here — number one, our military and intelligence cooperation with Israel will continue unabated, unaffected, and we are absolutely committed to making sure that the Israeli people are safe, particularly from rocket attacks and terrorist attacks aimed on civilians.
Number two, that the evaluation that’s taking place is specific to what happens between the Israelis and Palestinians going forward. We’ll continue to engage the Israeli government as well as the Palestinians, and ask them where they are interested in going and how do they see this issue being resolved. But what we can’t do is pretend that there’s a possibility of something that’s not there. And we can’t continue to premise our public diplomacy based on something that everybody knows is not going to happen at least in the next several years. That is something that we have to, for the sake of our own credibility, I think we have to be able to be honest about that.
And I guess one last point about this, because obviously I’ve heard a lot of the commentary — there’s a tendency I think in the reporting here to frame this somehow as a personal issue between myself and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I understand why that’s done, because when you frame it in those terms, the notion is, well, if we all just get along and everybody cools down, then somehow the problem goes away. I have a very business-like relationship with the Prime Minister. I’ve met with him more than any other world leader. I talk to him all the time. He is representing his country’s interests the way he thinks he needs to, and I’m doing the same.
So the issue is not a matter of relations between leaders; the issue is a very clear, substantive challenge. We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations, and for regional stability. That’s our view, and that continues to be our view. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach. And so this can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” This is a matter of figuring out how do we get through a real knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region.
Will you consider supporting Palestinian statehood at the U.N.?
President Obama: We’re going to do that evaluation — we’re going to partly wait for an actual Israeli government to form.