Jul 24, 2008 23:14 | Updated Nov 5, 2008 16:44
Obama sets out his Israel
in “Post” interview
By DAVID HOROVITZ
Two months ago in the Oval Office, President George W. Bush, coming to
the end of a two-term presidency and presumably as expert on
Israeli-Palestinian policy as he is ever going to be, was
accompanied by a team of no fewer than five advisers and
spokespeople during a 40-minute interview with this writer and three
other Israeli journalists.
In March, on his whirlwind visit to Israel, Republican
presidential nominee John McCain, one of whose primary
strengths is said to be his intimate grasp of foreign
affairs, chose to bring along Sen. Joe Lieberman to the
interview our diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon and I
conducted with him, looked to Lieberman several times for
reassurance on his answers and seemed a little flummoxed by
a question relating to the nuances of settlement
On Wednesday evening, toward the end of his packed
one-day visit here, Barack Obama, the Democratic senator who
is leading the race for the White House and who lacks long
years of foreign policy involvement, spoke to The
Jerusalem Post with only a single aide in his King David
Hotel room, and that aide's sole contribution to the
conversation was to suggest that the candidate and I switch
seats so that our photographer would get better lighting for
Several of Obama's Middle East advisers
former Clinton special envoy Dennis Ross and ex-ambassador
to Israel Daniel Kurtzer — were hovering in the vicinity.
But Obama, who was making only his second visit to Israel,
knew precisely what he wanted to say about the most
intricate issues confronting and concerning Israel, and
expressed himself clearly, even stridently on key subjects.
There is a limit to what can be gauged of a politician's
views as expressed in a relatively short interview at the
height of an election campaign. But Obama, who chose to give
the Post one of the only two formal sit-down
interviews he conducted during his visit, was clearly
conveying a carefully formulated message — and it was
striking in several areas.
He sought to sound resolute on thwarting Iran's nuclear
drive, while insisting on the need to “exhaust every avenue”
before the military option. He was optimistic on the
prospects of potential Syrian moderation.
He was succinct
and blunt on Jerusalem — and distinctly different from the “poor phrasing” of his
“Jerusalem will remain the capital of
Israel and it must remain undivided” comments during his
address to AIPAC’s policy conference last month. And most
notably, he was explicit and unsympathetic on the matter of
West Bank settlement.
Speaking to the Post six months and a political
lifetime ago in January, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared
that the unique advantage of trying to reach an accord with
the Palestinians during the Bush administration stemmed from
the fact that while even Israel’s best friends, when they
envision the permanent dimensions of our country, think of
Israel “in terms of the ’67 borders,” Bush “has already said
‘67-plus.’ He's the only president who has ever said that...
And that’s an amazing achievement for Israel.”
In the Knesset on Monday, British Prime Minister Gordon
Brown, a self-declared lifelong friend of Israel, underlined
the point by setting out the “fundamentals” of a
final-status accord involving “a two-state solution based on
And on Wednesday evening, Obama answered my question
about whether Israel has a right to try and maintain a
presence in the West Bank, for security, religious, historic
or other reasons, with a vigor and detail that also seemed
to confirm Olmert’s assessment of where conventional
friendly wisdom stands and that expanded significantly on
his brief settlement remarks in the AIPAC speech.
The 46-year-old senator, who must have been exhausted
after a day’s shuttling between Yad Vashem, Beit Hanassi,
Ramallah and Sderot, with a prime ministerial dinner still
ahead of him and Europe beckoning the next day, was
personable and gracious, nonetheless, calling out to Post
photographer Ariel Jerozolimski and me that he was just
going to put his tie on and then striding down the corridor
to greet us.
He spoke softly and deliberately, and though the
interview was brief and there was, of course, much more to
ask the front-runner in the race to lead the free world,
answers, transcribed here in full,
insight into his would-be presidential attitude to Israel
and the region ... and considerable food for thought.
[JP] Can you assure the people of Israel, and beyond, that
as president you will prevent Iran attaining nuclear
[BO] What I can do is assure that I will do everything in my
power as president to prevent Iran attaining nuclear
weapons. And I think that begins with engaging in tough,
direct talks with Iran, sending a clear message to Iran that
they shouldn’t wait for the next administration but should
start engaging in the P5 process [involving the five
permanent members of the UN Security Council] that’s taking
place right now, and elevating this to the top of our
national security priorities, so that we are mobilizing the
entire international community, including Russia and China,
on this issue.
One of the failures, I think, of our approach in the past
has been to use a lot of strong rhetoric but not follow
through with the kinds of both carrots and sticks that might
change the calculus of the Iranian regime. But I have also
said that I would not take any options off the table,
[JP] How do you address the concern that the Iranians, even
in the “tough negotiations” that you envisage, will play you
for time while moving towards a nuclear capability?
Ahmadinejad said today, “We're not pulling back... not one
iota.” They are very adamant.
[BO] I think it is important in mobilizing the international
community to make clear that this is not just a game that
we’re playing, but this is of the utmost seriousness — to
send messages to Russia and China that in our bilateral
relationships this is a top priority, not just a secondary
priority. And one of my strong beliefs is that, to the
extent that we are showing a willingness to negotiate but
are very clear and direct in our goals, and are displaying a
sense of urgency — that if the Iranians fail to respond,
we’ve stripped away whatever excuses they may have, [and]
whatever rationales may exist in the international community
for not ratcheting up sanctions and taking serious action.
[JP] There'd be a very limited time for that kind of approach?
[BO] Time is of the essence in this situation.
[JP] You told AIPAC that the Israeli strike on Syria
last year was “entirely justified to end that threat.”
Would you support an Israeli strike at Iranian
facilities in the coming months if Israel felt it had no
choice but to act?
[BO] My goal is to avoid being confronted with that
hypothetical. I’ve said in the past and I will repeat
that Israelis, and Israelis alone, have to make decisions
about their own security. But the grave consequences of
either doing nothing or initiating a potential war with
Iran are such that we want to do everything we can to
exhaust every avenue to avoid that option.
[JP] You’ve said on this trip that you want to work for
an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation from the minute
you’re sworn in, so let me ask you about the thesis that
there is no prospect of Palestinian moderation
prevailing and enabling a peace process to really move
forward until Iran’s nuclear drive has been thwarted —
that so long as the Teheran-backed extremists of Hamas
and so on feel that they are in the ascendant, the
moderates can’t prevail and that the whole region is now
in this kind of holding mode.
[BO] I think there is no doubt that there is a connection
between Iran’s strengthening over the last couple of
years, partly because some strategic errors have been
made on the part of the West. And [the same goes for]
the increasing boldness of Hizbullah and Hamas. But I
don’t think that’s the only factor and criterion in the
lack of progress.
Hamas’s victory in the [Palestinian Authority]
election can partly be traced to a sense of frustration
among the Palestinian people over how Fatah, over a
relatively lengthy period of time, had failed to deliver
basic services. I get a strong impression that [PA
President Mahmoud] Abbas and [Prime Minister Salaam]
Fayad are doing everything they can to address some of
those systemic failures by the Palestinian Authority.
The failures of Hamas in Gaza to deliver an improved
quality of life for their people give pause to the
Palestinians to think that pursuing that approach
automatically assures greater benefits.
You know, look, I arrive at this with no illusions as
to the difficulty in terms of what is required. But I
think it’s important for us to keep working at it,
frankly, because Israel’s security and peace in the
region depend on it.
[JP] There’s been some back and forth on your position
on Jerusalem. So as editor of The Jerusalem Post,
I need to ask you: Do you support Israel’s current claim
to sovereignty throughout the city, or should Jerusalem
also come to constitute the capital of a Palestinian
[BO] I believe that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
But I think that how Israel and the Palestinians resolve
this issue is a final-status issue. It needs to be left
up to the two parties.
[JP] Tell me about Syria: Israel is now in indirect
talks with Syria. Would you as president directly
re-engage with Damascus even if it hadn’t changed its
position on hosting terror groups and so on?
[BO] My general view is that initiating direct contacts
between the United States and other countries is a
generally smart practice — if nothing else just to get
better intelligence on what they are thinking, on what
their approaches are, what their calculations are, what
their interests are. I think that based on conversations
I’ve had here in Israel as well as conversations with
leaders elsewhere in the region, there is the
possibility at least that the Syrian government
genuinely seeks to break out of the isolation. What
price they are willing to pay to break out of that
isolation, is an unanswered question. It's worth
And if in fact there are some genuine signals that
Syria is willing to drive out terrorists in their midst,
shut down the arms flow into Lebanon, or to otherwise
engage in more responsible behavior, I think it could be
a shift in the region that would be extremely
advantageous. And the United States should partner with
Israel as well as moderate forces in the Palestinian
community to pursue that.
[JP] The American position has been blanketly opposed
to settlement construction. Do you think Israel has a
right to try and maintain a presence in the West Bank -
for security, religious, historic or other reasons?
[BO] I think that Israel should abide by previous
agreements and commitments that have been made, and
aggressive settlement construction would seem to violate
the spirit at least, if not the letter, of agreements
that have been made previously.
Israel’s security concerns, I think, have to be taken
into account, via negotiation. I think the parties in
previous discussions have stated that
construction doesn’t necessarily contribute to that
enhanced security. I think there are those who would
argue that the more settlements there are, the more
Israel has to invest in protecting those settlements and
the more tensions arise that may undermine Israel's
Ultimately, though, these are part of the discussions
that have to take place between the parties. But I think
that, based on what’s previously been said, for Israel
to make sure that it is aligned with those previous
statements is going to be helpful to the process.
[JP] The current Israeli prime minister told me in an
interview a few months ago that the great advantage of
the Bush administration on that issue was that they
looked at Israel on the basis of “67-plus” — that their
starting point was that maybe Israel can expect or
deserve support for a slightly larger sovereign presence
than the pre-1967 Israel. Do you think of Israel in its
final-status incarnation on the basis of “67-plus”?
[BO] Look, I think that both sides on this equation are
going to have to make some calculations.
Israel may seek “67-plus” and justify it in terms of the buffer that
they need for security purposes. They’ve got to consider
whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of
the other party.
The Palestinians are going to have to make a calculation: Are we going
to fight for every inch of that ’67 border or, given the
fact that 40 years have now passed, and new realities
have taken place on the ground, do we take a deal that
may not perfectly align with the ’67 boundaries?
My sense is that both sides recognize that there’s
going to have to be some give. The question from my
perspective is can the parties move beyond a rigid,
formulaic or ideological approach and take a practical
approach that looks at the larger picture and says,
“What’s going to be the best way for us to achieve
security and peace?”
[JP] How should the free world tackle the threat of
Islamic extremism, the “death cult” ideology that holds
that the finest thing you can do for your god is kill
and be killed?
[BO] There are a number of different aspects. Our first
approach has to be to capture or kill those who are so
steeped in that ideology that we’re not going to convert
them. Bin-Laden is not going to change his mind
suddenly. So we have to be very aggressive in simply
rolling up those terrorist networks that have been set
up and that adhere to those views.
I would argue that the number of Muslims who both
embrace and act on that ideology is relatively low.
There’s then a larger circle, there’s a broader part of
the Muslim world that is fundamentalist, but is not
wedded to violence. The key in dealing with that aspect
of Islam is to help them reconcile modernity to their
faith. A lot of times their gripe is not with the West
per se, but with the forces of modern life and
globalization that is disruptive to their views of what
their faith means.
And I think that lifting up models of countries that
have found accommodation between Islam and a modern
economy, globalization, diversity of cultures ...
[JP] Countries such as?
[BO] A country like Jordan has gone a long way in moving
in that direction. A country like Indonesia, which I
lived in as a child for four years, has a strong
tradition of tolerance of diversity. And although there
was a certain period of time when a fundamentalist
strain of terrorism infected the culture, that’s not its
A final aspect of this is recognizing that the
population explosion of uneducated young men and women
who are impoverished is always dangerous in any society.
And that helps fuel and feed Islamic radicalism, even if
there is not a direct correlation.
I recognize that many of the perpetrators of
terrorist acts aren’t poor; often times [they] come from
middle class or even upper class families. [But] there’s
no doubt that the tolerance or the acceptance of
extremism among the broader population is often fuelled
by frustration and a sense of no prospects for the
To the extent that we can work with countries like
Egypt, or countries like Jordan, to assure that the
youth that are coming up have avenues that allow them to
prosper ... We’re not going to end this, to eliminate
terrorism entirely. There's always going to have to be a
part of our strategy that involves force. But I think
that we can shrink the appeal of that ideology in a way
that makes an enormous difference.