WASHINGTON/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: The White House said Thursday Israel needs to recognize the role “public opinion” in the Middle East will play in efforts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.
Obama adviser Ben Rhodes said Thursday the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements had changed the political dynamic in the region. He added that the peace process would no longer just require Israel to have the support of individual leaders in the region, but the public as well.
The most dramatic shift in the region has been in Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel. Newly elected leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood party are viewed with suspicion by some Israelis, though the government has vowed to uphold the treaty.
Obama is due to arrive in Israel Wednesday. He will also make stops in the West Bank and Jordan.
Obama has told Israelis that the United States has significant capabilities to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that he is keeping all options on the table.
In an interview with Israeli television broadcast Thursday, ahead of his visit next week, Obama said the U.S. estimated it would take Iran “over a year or so” to develop a nuclear weapon once Tehran decided to pursue one.
He also acknowledged the differences he has had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but said the foundation of bilateral ties was strong, as was his commitment to Israel’s security.
Obama said he and Netanyahu shared a “terrific, business-like relationship,” and a number of times referred to the Israeli leader as Bibi, his popular childhood nickname.
Iran has become the main source of friction in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, which Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator, called the “most dysfunctional” he has ever seen between an American president and an Israeli prime minister.
He believes a thaw is still possible, especially if Obama hits the right notes in Israel.
“He needs to say to them, ‘I understand this is a tough neighborhood and you have a dark history. I’m not trivializing your fears.’ This hasn’t been adequately communicated by this administration,” Miller said.
Regarding the long-stalled peace process with the Palestinians, Obama spoke somewhat vaguely, saying he was coming to listen during meetings he would hold with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “My goal on this trip is to listen,” he said.
Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel comes at the onset of spring – the “red line” previously set by Netanyahu for attacking Iran’s nuclear sites.
“We think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama said.
Asked whether he would order an attack on Iran should diplomacy fail, Obama said: “When I say that all options are on the table, all options are on the table. The United States obviously has significant capabilities but our goal here is to make sure that Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon that could threaten Israel or trigger an arms race in the region.” Many Israelis will be looking to Obama for firmer reassurance of his resolve to do what is deemed necessary, including the use of military force, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Iran denies such ambitions.
Netanyahu, victorious in January elections, only clinched a coalition deal Thursday, and Obama said any breakthrough in peace negotiations with the Palestinians would be unlikely until the Israeli government stabilized.
Netanyahu wants to show Israelis, who like their leaders to be assertive with Washington but not on bad terms with it, that he can still do business with Israel’s superpower ally.
During the visit, Obama faces the challenge of overcoming Israeli suspicions that have lingered since his early days in office when he pressed Netanyahu for a freeze on settlement expansion and launched a short-lived outreach to Tehran, Israel’s archfoe.
Nonetheless, many Israelis regard Obama as a solid ally, especially after Washington backed them in the Hamas conflict and staunchly opposed recent Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations.
Obama stopped short of calling for a freeze in settlement building in the occupied West Bank, but suggested a change in Israel’s policy would empower moderate Palestinian leaders.
He said “it’s a matter of both parties coming together and recognizing that their futures in some ways are going to be inextricably linked and that Israel will be safer, more secure, more prosperous if the issue can be resolved.”
In an appeal to the Israeli people, Obama said he regretted that he would not have a chance to walk the streets and hear what average folks have to say.