Interview with Ilana Dayan of Israel Channel 2
Dayan: Mr. President, thank you so much for having us at the White House.
The President. Wonderful to have you here.
Dayan: Here's what you said just a few years ago: "I had the impression that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not interested in just occupying a space, but is interested in being a statesman and putting his country on a more secure track." And even — also, you saI.., "I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace. I think he's willing to take risks for peace." Would you repeat those very same words today?
The President. Well, I think it's always difficult to put yourself in somebody else's shoes. And I think Prime Minister Netanyahu — I've gotten to know and worked with since almost the beginning of my presidency — is somebody who loves Israel deeply. I think he cares about the security of the Israeli people. I think he recognizes the history of hostility and anti-Semitism that makes it very important to him and his place in history to preserve Israel's security. And I respect all that.
I think that he also is someone who has been skeptical about the capacity of Israelis and Palestinians to come together on behalf of peace. I think that he is also a poitician who's concerned about keeping coalitions together and maintaining his office.
Dayan: To the point of not being willing to take the risks you'd like him to take for peace?
The President: I think it's important to recognize that it's not about what I or the United States wants from him, but what Israel needs in terms of its long-term security.
I have said from the start of my presidency and from the time that I was a U.S. senator and the time that I was a state legislator back in Illinois that I consider it a moral obligation for us to support a Jewish homeland, that I would do everything I could to make sure that the Israeli people are secure. And I've kept that promise throughout my presidency. Even my critics I think in Israel would acknowledge that the military cooperation, the intelligence cooperation, the work we've done together on Iron Dome — that I have been there when it comes to protecting the Israeli people.
But what I've also said is that if, in fact, we want a Jewish homeland and a Jewish democracy, then this issue of the Palestinian people has to be resolved.
Dayan: And we'll get to that, and to the Palestinian problem. But you mentioned your critics in Israel. And you know, I've been speaking to people here and I've been asking those people who admire you and know your commitment to the security of the state of Israel, how come it isn't delivered? And someone told me it's because "he is not a hugger." He is simply not a hugger. [laughter] Might that be part of the problem?
The President: Well, the people here think I'm a pretty good hugger. I think there are a lot of filters between me and the people of Israel. They're not generally receiving a message directly from me. When I've visited Israel, when I was in Sderot, talking to families who had seen missiles crash through their living rooms, when I was with young people in Jerusalem and talking to them about the possibilities of peace, the reception was incredibly warm.
And the challenge I think that I have when it comes to these issues is that I do think part of my obligation of being a friend of Israel's is to speak the truth as I see it. And the truth as I see it is that the very moral imperatives that led to the founding of Israel — the belief that all of us share a basic humanity and dignity and rights that make it important for us to speak out against anti-Semitism — those things also require me from my perspective to say clearly that a Palestinian youth in Ramallah who feels their possibilities constrained by the status quo, that they have a claim on us, that they have a claim not just on Palestinian leaders, they have a claim on Israeli leaders. They have a claim on U.S. leaders in the same way that children around the world who are locked out of opportunity have those claims.
And so I think it's — when you speak in those terms, so often these days, here in the United States as well as overseas, what I consider to be a constructive and necessary admonition to live up to the core values that led to Israel's founding can be twisted or interpreted as not being sufficiently supportive of Israel.
Dayan: But you know what, because the very same Prime Minister with whom you disagreed on parts of those issues was elected by the vast majority of Israelis. They want him to be its leader. So that's part of the problem.
The President: Well, I think — I'm not an expert on Israeli politics. You are. But I'm a student of it, and an observer. And I think what's true in Israel is true in the United States and is true everywhere — that we're always trying to balance a politics of hope and a politics of fear. And given the incredible tumult and chaos that's taking place in the Middle East, the hope of the Arab Spring that turned into the disasters of places like Syria, the rise of ISIL, the continuing expressions of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli settlement in so much of the Arab world, the rockets coming in from Gaza, the buildup of arms by Hezbollah — all those things, justifiably, make Israelis concerned about security, and security first.
And I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody who's predisposed to think of security first; to think perhaps that peace is na?ve; to see the worst possibilities as opposed to the best possibilities in Arab partners or Palestinian partners.
And so I do think that, right now, those politics and those fears are driving the government's response. And I understand it. But my argument has been — directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu and I think publicly — is that what may seem wise and prudent in the short term can actually end up being unwise over the long term.
And it's not simply the fear immediately of terrorism that should concern Israel. What I think Israel also has to be concerned about, although it's a long-term concern, is that if the status quo is not resolved, then, because of demographics, because of the pressures and the frustrations that are going to exist in the West Bank and certainly already exist in Gaza — that over time, Israel is going to have a choice about the nature of the Israeli state and its character. And if it loses its essential values that are enshrined in its declaration of independence, I think that is something that has to be guarded against as well.
Dayan: But you see, Mr. President, when Israelis hear of a historic compromise, in this office 17 years ago, you applied pressure on the same Prime Minister Netanyahu to hand the Golan Heights over to Hafez Assad. So many Israelis are terrified today at the mere thought of us having now ISIL or al Qaeda or a bunch of other unfriendly groups taking a swim in the Sea of Galilee.
The President. Right.
Dayan: That's the essence of Israeli —
The President. Well, and I want to be clear, though, that in all my discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu and all my public statements, I have never suggested that Israel should ever trade away its security for the prospect of peace. And I've never suggested that it is inappropriate for Israel to insist on any two-state solution taking into account the risks that what appears to be a peaceful government Palestinian Authority today could turn hostile.
So when John Kerry was engaged in some very aggressive and difficult diplomacy last year and we were looking at the possibility of creating a framework, I sent some of my top military advisors to Israel and asked the Israeli government, describe for us on your terms what you think you need in order to protect yourself against the worst-case scenario, and if we can figure out how to meet it, then are you prepared to move forward. And the truth is, is that we have ways in which we could deal with issues like the Jordan Valley.
So the issue here is not let's be na?ve and let's assume the best; the issue is how, in a very difficult situation, where Israel has very real enemies, should it approach the imperative, the necessity to resolve this issue. Because if it does not, then the long-term trends are very dangerous for Israel.
Dayan: You heard our Prime Minister one day before the election saying very clearly he does not want to see a Palestinian state on his watch. A day after the election, and over and over again ever since, Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying he is committed to the two-state solution. Just yesterday he said he wants to cooperate with other Arab countries on that matter. He does endorse a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. Why not take him at his word?
The President. Well, I think that when he spoke right before the election, he was fairly unequivocal in saying that it wouldn't happen during his prime ministership. As long as he was Prime Minister, there wouldn't be two states. I think subsequently, his statements have suggested that there is the possibility of a Palestinian state, but it has so many caveats, so many conditions, that it is not realistic to think that those conditions would be met any time in the near future. And so the danger here is that Israel as a whole loses credibility.
Already, the international community does not believe that Israel is serious about a two-state solution. The statement the Prime Minister made compounded that belief that there's not a commitment there. And I think that it is difficult to simply accept at face value the statement made after an election that would appear to look as if this is simply an effort to return to the previous status quo in which we talk about peace in the abstract, but it's always tomorrow, it's always later.
Dayan: You refer to it — sorry to interrupt you, Mr. President — you referred to it in an interview to The Atlantic the other day — to that and to some other statements the Prime Minister made before the election about Arabs — and you said a very interesting sentence — you said, "All that has foreign policy consequences." I'm asking you on a very practical level, Mr. President, what is it that Israel is getting from the United States today that it might not get in the future?
The President: Well, when I said after the election that we would have to evaluate our policy, I was referring to something very specific, and that is how we approach defending Israel on the international stage around the Palestinian issue. So in terms of what the United States provides to Israel, the most important thing we provide — security and intelligence and military assistance — that doesn't go away, because that is part of the commitment, the solemn commitment that I've made with respect to Israel's security. And that's something I feel very deeply and that's not something that's conditioned on any particular policy.
But the practical consequence that I refer to — let's be very specific — if there are additional resolutions introduced in the United Nations, up until this point, we have pushed away against European efforts, for example, or other efforts because we've said, the only way this gets resolved is if the two parties work together.
Dayan: But you're not sure you're going to continue doing that?
The President. Well, here's the challenge. If, in fact, there's no prospect of an actual peace process, if nobody believes there's a peace process, then it becomes more difficult to argue with those who are concerned about settlement construction, those who are concerned about the current situation? it's more difficult for me to say to them, be patient and wait because we have a process here — because all they need to do is to point to the statements that have been made saying there is no process.
And so the issue here — and this is something that we expect to work with the Israeli people as well as Palestinians, as well as the international community — how do we move off what appears right now to be a hopeless situation and move it back towards a hopeful situation. That will require more than just words. That will require some actions. And that's going to be hard work, though, because right now I think there's not a lot of confidence in the process.
And the United States has a great investment in this not just because we care about Israeli security, but because we also care about making sure that the region as a whole stays focused on issues like ISIL, which are so dangerous to everybody.
Dayan: And given the makeup of the current Israeli government, and given the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, do you think there is a chance of you giving it another try in the next 18 months?
The President. I don't see a likelihood of a framework agreement. I don't see the likelihood of us being able to emerge from Camp David or some other process and hold up hands and say —
Dayan: Not that —
The President. No. And this is where the reevaluation takes place. The question is how do we create some building blocks of trust and progress so that if I'm a well-meaning Palestinian right now — let's say, I'm a Palestinian student or I'm a Palestinian businessman in the West Bank, and I believe in peace, and I don't buy the rhetoric of Hamas, and I know there are good people inside of Israel and I recognize Israel's right to exist, but every day I'm traveling through checkpoints that may take me hours, and if I have a business trip or a student exchange trip, I may not be able to go because I don't have a state, and I'm restricted and somebody else is making that decision, and I don't see opportunities for me in the future — the question is what do we say to them? What are their prospects?
And part of what I think we all have to do is to find a way to have an answer that is more than just more of the same.
Dayan: Which brings me to a question and a plan that I'm sure you had a chance to hear about, and that's the plan which I should note was suspended for now to segregate some West Bank bus lines. And I think about who you are, the kind of memories you give voice to, and I wonder, what's the first thing that came to your mind when you heard about it?
The President. Well, here's the message I recently delivered at a local synagogue — that when Rabbi Heschel worked alongside Martin Luther King on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, he didn't have to do that. He did that because he recognized, in the plight of African Americans and the discrimination that was being conducted against them, part of his own experience and his own traditions. He knew what it was like to be a stranger. He knew what it was like to be mistreated. He knew what it was like to be segregated. And that compelled him to act.
In my mind, there is a direct line between the Jewish experience, the African American experience, and as a consequence, we have, I hope, a special empathy and a special regard for those who are being mistreated because of the color of their skin or the nature of their faith.
And the Israeli people I think don't have to look to me to determine how to feel about a law like that. I think the Israeli people need to look within their own traditions — because the Jewish traditions that helped found Israel have a direct point of view on an issue like that.
And I always tell people here, when I was in Jerusalem and I spoke, the biggest applause line I got was when I said, I know that the people of Israel care about those Palestinian children. And the applause was overwhelming because there was a self-recognition. This wasn't me lecturing them. It was simply reflecting what I've seen in my interactions with Israelis, what I've seen in terms of Jewish values here in the United States and the role it's played in making this a more open and tolerant society.
Dayan: Mr. President, I want to talk about the Iran deal for a couple of minutes.
The President. Yes, of course.
Dayan: There's a remarkably sincere observation you made once — you said, "Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable." And you said, "Any given decision I make, I wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn't going to work." I'm afraid Israelis cannot afford even three to four percent chance you're wrong, Mr. President, because if you are, the bomb will hit Tel Aviv first.
The President. Well, let's back up on this. We know that Iran, prior to me coming into office, had gone from a few hundred centrifuges to thousands. We know that the potential breakout time for Iran, if it chose to build a bomb, is a matter potentially of months today instead of years.
And seeing that, I came in and organized an international coalition — including countries like Russia and China that tend not to be very sympathetic to sanctions regimes — and we have imposed the most effective sanctions on Iran over the course of the last five years that has led them to essentially lose a decade, perhaps, of economic growth.
At the time, people were skeptical. They said, oh, sanctions aren't going to work. Then we were able to force Iran to the negotiating table because of the effectiveness of the sanctions. And I said that in exchange for some modest relief in sanctions, Iran is going to have to freeze its nuclear program, roll back on its stockpiles of very highly enriched uranium — the very stockpiles that Prime Minister Netanyahu had gone before the United Nations with his picture of the bomb and said that was proof of how dangerous this was — all that stockpile is gone.
And in fact, at that time, everybody said, this isn't going to work. They're going to cheat. They're not going to abide by it. And yet, over a year and a half later, we know that they have abided by the letter of it.
So we have I think shown that we are able to construct a mechanism, if, in fact, we get an agreement, to verify that all four pathways to a nuclear weapon are shut off.
Dayan: But what if they take the $100 million showered at them after sanctions are lifted and not take them to build movie theaters and hospitals in Tehran, but rather divert it to military use?
The President. Okay, so that's a different question, though. So I just want to separate out the questions. There's one critique of a potential nuclear deal which is it won't hold, and Iran will cheat, and they will get a bomb. And I have confidence that if, in fact, we arrive at the kind of agreement that I'm looking for, and that was described in Geneva but now has to be memorialized, then we will have cut off their path to a nuclear weapon and we will be able to verify it with unprecedented mechanisms.
Now, it may be that Iran is not able to make the necessary concessions for us to know we can verify it —
Dayan: Then there's no deal.
The President. Then there's going to be no deal. But let's assume there's a deal. There is now a second set of arguments, which is you bring down sanctions —
Dayan: Now, that's wishful thinking —
The President. — and they've got $100-$150 billion, and now they can do even more mischief around the region. I would make three points on that.
Number one is that we will be putting in place a snapback provision so that if they cheat on the nuclear deal, the sanctions automatically go back into place; we don't have to ask Mr. Putin's permission, for example, to put sanctions back.
Number two, we shouldn't assume that we can perpetuate the sanctions forever anyway. There's a shelf life on the sanctions, because the reason the international community agreed was to get to the table to deal with the nuclear issue, not to deal with all of these other issues. So we will get a diminishing return just on maintaining sanctions.
Number three, Mr. Rouhani was elected specifically in order to strengthen the Iranian economy. There's enormous poitical pressure on them — as I said, they've lost a decade of economic growth. Their economy has been contracting each year. And it is true that out of $100 billion or $150 billion, of course the IRGC, the Quds Force, they're going to want to get their piece. But the fact is, is that the great danger that the region has faced from Iran is not because they have so much money. Their budget — their military budget is $15 billion compared to $150 billion for the Gulf States — I just met with them.
They have a low-tech but very effective mechanism of financing proxies, of creating chaos in regions. And they've also shown themselves, regardless of sanctions, to be willing to finance Hezbollah with rockets and others even in the face of sanctions.
So the question then becomes are they going to suddenly be able to finance 10 times the number of Hezbollah fighters? Probably not.
Dayan: I see. Mr. President, you know I do —
The President. I know you're running out of time.
The President. But you got me all stirred up.
Dayan: So perhaps you will give us a couple more minutes.
The President. I'll give you a couple of extra minutes.
Dayan: I don't know if you noticed, Mr. President, but our Prime Minister gave a speech to Congress a few months ago.
The President. Really? I didn't notice. [laughter]
Dayan: Yes, really. I was wondering if you noticed that. But I asked your good friend, David Axelrod, your chief strategist, about it later and he said this was a highly political exercise. Would you agree on that?
The President. As I said before, I think the Prime Minister cares very much about the security of the Israeli people, and I think that in his mind, he is doing what's right.
I care very much about the people of Israel as well, and in my mind, it is very much in Israel's interest to make sure that Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon. And I can, I think, demonstrate — not based on any hope, but on facts and evid.ence and analysis — that the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable, tough agreement. A military solution will not fix it, even if the United States participates. It would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program, but it will not eliminate it.
Dayan: Can you even imagine a scenario where Prime Minister Netanyahu, after this deal — which he says it's a bad deal, that's why he came to Congress — launches a military strike and doesn't even call you ahead of time?
The President. I won't speculate on that. What I can say is — to the Israeli people — I understand your concerns and I understand your fears. But what is the worst scenario is the path that we're currently on in which there's no nuclear resolution, and ultimately, we have no way to verify whether Iran has a weapon or not.
Sanctions won't do it. A military solution is temporary. The deal that we're negotiating potentially takes a nuclear weapon off the table for 20 years. And so when the Prime Minister comes here, I understand he is speaking because he believes that it's the right thing to do. But I respectfully disagree with him. And I think that I can show if, in fact, Iran abides by the deal that we're outlining now — and they may not. They could still walk away and miss this opportunity.
Dayan: But you thought, Mr. President, the speech was "destructive to the fabric of the relations," to take the words of your National Security Advisor, Susan Rice?
The President. I will — you know what. Some things are in the past. I think it's fair to say that if I showed up at the Knesset without checking with the Prime Minister first, if I had negotiated with Mr. Herzog — [laughter] — that there would be a sense of some protocols that had been breached.
Dayan: You said the other day to Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview that you plan to be around 20 years from now, therefore you'll feel responsible if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. And I just realized, perhaps you plan to be many years more around — if only to postpone the moment that Bibi come speak at the funeral?
The President. That was one of my better jokes.
Dayan: You enjoyed the punch, didn't you?
The President. That was a good joke.
Dayan: Can we skip the part in which you tell me there's nothing personal between you two?
The President. I will tell you this. When I'm with Bibi, we have good conversations. They're tough, they're forceful, we disagree, but I enjoy jousting with him, I do.
Dayan: Remember the meeting four years ago here at the White House when he took the time to speak about some chapters in Jewish history? I could see your jaw was locked.
The President. Oh, no, I think — I was probably just hungry and waiting for lunch. [laughter] I think that so often these issues get framed in personal terms because it's easier. If I'm a journalist, it's easier — when you're a writer, you always want to have a protagonist and it's easier to follow —
Dayan: No, it's because I saw you with David Cameron, and I saw you with Angela Merkel at the time. And I saw Clinton with Rabin and I saw Bush with Sharon. There is something that is called chemistry between leaders, isn't there?
The President. Of course. There's no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu and I come from different political traditions and have different orientations. But part of what's been valuable about the U.S.-Israeli relationship is it has — it is deeper than any individual leader or any particular government. That won't change.
I am less worried about any particular disagreement that I have with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I am more worried about what I described earlier, which is an Israeli politics that's motivated only by fear and that then leads to a loss of those core values that, when I was young and I was admiring Israel from afar, were what were the essence of this nation.
And I want to say this — because I always have to be careful if I'm speaking about another country to recognize ultimately it's up to the Israeli people and their duly elected government to make decisions about what their policies are. All I can do is to, as a friend and an ally — the most important friend and ally Israel has — that these are concerns.
These concerns are ones that I have about my own country. Look, when I came into office, we had gone through years in which, as a consequence of a reactive fear, we made what I believe were very damaging strategic mistakes.
Dayan: And wars.
The President. And wars. And we lost lives, and we lost credibility in the world stage. And in some cases — for example, around issues like renditions and torture — we lost our values. And it's taken a long time to rebuild those. So I am just as self-critical about what I and U.S. government officials have to do in order for us to preserve what's best in us. But I would respectfully suggest that Israel has to do that same self-reflection, because if it doesn't, there are things that you can lose that don't just involve rockets.
Dayan: I have to ask you a personal question before we have to end this interview. After six and a half years in office, what is it that surprises you more when they wake you up at night — good news or bad news?
The President. Well, good news always surprises me. [laughter] The bad news is constant. I will tell you this, though. We have gone through some incredible, very difficult moments in this presidency, starting with a world financial crisis, dealing with terrorist organizations, the upheaval in the Middle East, the invasion of Ukraine. But when I speak to young people, I always remind them that as difficult, as challenging, as sometimes scary as the current moment appears, if you had to choose a moment in the world's history when you would want to be born and you had the best chance — not knowing whether you were going to be born rich or poor, male or female, black or white —
Dayan: What would you choose?
The President. — you would choose today. Because there's no moment in history in which the world is healthier, is wealthier. There's actually less violence today than there was 50 years ago, or 100 years ago. And so the arc, the trajectory of humanity has been to steadily embrace those values that Israelis and Americans share.
Dayan: Bends towards justice.
The President. Yes.
And when you look at Israel, as challenging as the environment seems, imagine how it seemed to Ben-Gurion. Imagine how it seemed to Moshe Dayan, when you didn't know that your military could defeat the massed armies of Arab — when I'm in Jerusalem or I'm in Tel Aviv and I'm meeting these incredible young tech leaders and talking to them about the inventions that can help save people's lives around the world, and when I see what's happened in terms of irrigation innovation to make a desert bloom, that has to give us optimism.
So my point is that, whether it's here in the United States, whether it's in Israel, we have to be properly aware of we have real enemies out there; we have to be vigilant in guarding against harm to our people; we have to be self-critical about all the failures that we have — but we can't just be driven by this sense that there's only danger. There's also possibility. There's also hope.
And I've seen that in the faces of Israeli children. I've seen it in the faces of Palestinian children. And it's our job — my job as President but even as a citizen, and you as a journalist, and everybody who's watching — to feed hope and not just feed fear.
Dayan: One last personal question, Mr. President. You already think about January 20, 2017? Do you think about it with relief or with anxiety, the day you leave this house?
The President. Oh, I think that I will be very melancholy and sad about all the friendships and the incredible team that I've built here. I think that I will miss the incredible privilege of this office. But I very much respect the wisdom of two-term limits.
Dayan: But you know, retiring these days is the best way to come back to the White House as a first spouse or something like that. [laughter]
The President. You haven't met Michelle. That will never happen. [laughter]
Dayan: One offer that I want to make.
The President. Yes.
Dayan: I know how much you love basketball. And I know that you tweeted the other day that LeBron is the heart of Cleveland, right? But you know who the coach is?
The President. He's an outstanding former Israeli coach, David Blatt.
Dayan: So if you're looking for a second career in basketball, we can do something about it, Mr. President. [laughter]
The President. I'm way too old. [laughter]
Dayan: Thank you very much, Mr. President. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
The President. I enjoyed it. Thank you so much.
Barack Obama, Interview with Ilana Dayan of Israel Channel 2 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/331701