Obama Says He Told Netanyahu That Talk Before Election Hurt the Peace Process

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Obama, seen above in 2013, have had a troubled relationship. Credit Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Obama said he has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Israeli leader’s remarks in the closing days of his re-election campaign had upended the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and ran counter to the very nature of Israeli democracy, an unusually forceful and public condemnation of the top official of a vital United States ally.

In his first public comments on the matter since Mr. Netanyahu’s victory in Tuesday’s elections, Mr. Obama said the prime minister’s pre-election statement that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch had all but foreclosed the chance for negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I indicated to him that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible,” Mr. Obama said in a videotaped interview with The Huffington Post conducted on Friday and released on Saturday.

Ignoring the prime minister’s attempts in postelection interviews to walk back his comments, Mr. Obama made it clear — as have senior members of his administration in recent days — that he believes Mr. Netanyahu is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The New York Times invites readers to ask questions about what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies mean for Israel and its neighbors.

“We take him at his word that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region,” Mr. Obama said.

Recounting the traditional congratulatory call on Thursday that Mr. Obama waited two full days to place, the president also described a strongly worded lecture that he gave Mr. Netanyahu about an Election Day Facebook posting in which the Israeli leader warned that Arab voters were going to the polls “in droves,” an assertion widely interpreted as an attempt to suppress the Arab vote.

“We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions — that although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly,” Mr. Obama said. “If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also, I think, starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.”

The president’s comments were the latest evidence that the toxic relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, for years a source of frustration and anger for both men, has reached a new low, and that the White House is now engaged in a remarkably public feud with the Israeli prime minister.

Mr. Obama said the disagreements would not interfere with the military and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Israel. But he made clear that his administration was unhappy with the current policies under Mr. Netanyahu.

“While taking into complete account Israel’s security, we can’t just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements — that’s not a recipe for stability in the region,” Mr. Obama said.

The break is unfolding as Mr. Obama presses for an international accord with Iran to rein in its nuclear program, talks that Mr. Netanyahu has denounced as a means of easing rather than blocking the path for Israel’s mortal enemy to acquire a nuclear weapon. Mr. Obama offered a measured assessment of the chances for reaching agreement.

“They have not yet made the kind of concessions that are, I think, going to be needed for a final deal to get done,” Mr. Obama said of the Iranians during the interview. “But they have moved, and so there’s the possibility.”

He said his objective was to strike a deal within “weeks, not months,” although he said it was “premature” to suggest there was a draft of an agreement.

The interview also touched on domestic matters, including the budget.

Mr. Obama reiterated his opposition to staying within strict spending caps and automatic cuts known as sequestration. The president said that if Republicans, who unveiled budget blueprints last week that kept the limits, produce spending legislation that holds to that position, it would translate into drastic cuts in programs, including education.

“I’m not going to sign it,” he said.

His own budget proposed spending about $75 billion more, equally split between defense and domestic programs.

Mr. Obama also said he would move “relatively soon” to issue new rules to raise the annual salary threshold below which employees who work more than 40 hours per week must be paid overtime wages. The requirement currently applies only to employees who earn $23,600 or less. The president would not reveal what the new limit would be.

The New York Times

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