President Obama didn’t want to comment today on the allegations of unnamed White House officials that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been spying on the United States to undermine a nuclear deal.
“As a general rule, I don’t comment on intelligence matters in a big room full of reporters, and I think I’ll continue that tradition,” he quipped at a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
But he was ready to throw out some more soundbites in regard to how he feels about Netanyahu.
“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,” Obama said. “You know, I’ve said before and I’ll simply repeat, you know, 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 a lot of voters inside of Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally,” he added.
Netanayhu has clarified that a two-state solution cannot happen while Hamas is in a unity pact with Fatah, along with other longstanding conditions about the recognition and security of Israel.
“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 any time soon,” Obama continued.
“So, even if you accept it, I think the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 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.”
The president said nobody envisioned “that overnight you suddenly have a Palestinian state right next to Jerusalem and that Israel would not have a whole range of security issues that had to be met and that it would be phased in over a long period of time.”
“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 is hard to envision how that happens, based on the prime minister’s statements.”
His “re-evaluation” won’t focus on security cooperation, Obama said, adding he’ll “continue to do whatever I need to do to make sure that our friends in Israel are safe.”
“But I am required to evaluate honestly how we manage Israeli-Palestinian relations over the next several years… 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.”
Obama said he’ll be talking with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to gauge their feelings on the issue, 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,” he said. “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.”
Obama added that he’s “obviously” heard lots of “commentary” about his relationship with Netanyahu, and insisted that they have a “very businesslike relationship.”
“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, you know, 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. OK.”
On when that re-evaluation takes place, and if it may take the form of not backing Israel at the United Nations, Obama replied, “We’re going to partly wait for an actual Israeli government to form.”