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Obama highlights differences with Israel over Middle East

Obama says Israel vote won't affect Iran nuclear talks, criticizes Netanyahu over his policies towards the Palestinians
US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office in Washington, DC on 19 March, 2015 in (AFP)

Israel's elections, which saw Benjamin Netanyahu clinch a third term, will not greatly affect Barack Obama's defence of any deal reached with Iran, the US president said.

"I don't think it will have a significant impact," Obama told The Huffington Post in an interview Friday published in full on Saturday.

Iran and six world powers are in negotiations to clinch a landmark deal that would have the country scale back its controversial nuclear programme in return for relief from sanctions.

The Israeli leader opposes any accommodation with Tehran and came to Washington during his election campaign to address US lawmakers, denouncing the agreement under negotiation as a "bad deal".

"Obviously, there's significant scepticism in Israel generally about Iran, and understandably. Iran has made vile comments, anti-Semitic comments, comments about the destruction of Israel.

"It is precisely for that reason that even before I became president, I said Iran could not have a nuclear weapon," Obama added.

"What is going to have an effect on whether we get a deal done is, number one, is Iran prepared to show, to prove to the world that it is not developing a nuclear weapon, and can we verify that in an intrusive, consistent way," Obama said.

"Frankly, they have not yet made the kind of concessions that are I think going to be needed for a final deal to get done. But they have moved, and so there's the possibility."

'Erode the meaning of democracy'

During the interview, Obama also criticized Netanyahu over his warning that Palestinian citizens of Israel would vote "in droves".

Obama told The Huffington Post he had "indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel's traditions."

The White House said earlier this week that Obama had warned Netanyahu on Thursday that his last-minute campaign pledge to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and his comments about Palestinian citizens of Israel would force a rethink in Washington.

"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," Obama said.

"And I think that that is what's best about Israeli democracy. 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."

Obama also criticised the Israeli leader's tough stance on the Palestinians after his election win, saying the United States is "evaluating" options for peace in the region.

'Evaluate what other options are available'

"We take him at his word when he said 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," Obama said.

Even as Netanyahu scrambled to deny he had ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state - long the starting point for Middle East peace efforts and a cornerstone of US policy - the White House indicated it could withdraw its unwavering support for Israel at the United Nations.

The US president vowed to keep cooperating with the Israeli government on military and intelligence operations, but stopped short of confirming whether Washington would continue to block Palestinian efforts to obtain statehood through the United Nations.

The United States - a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council - has opposed moves at the United Nations to recognise a Palestinian state, saying that must be part of a negotiated peace deal.

It has also shielded Israel from often Arab-led UN votes castigating Tel Aviv for various actions, including alleged human rights abuses.

Such a move would represent a major inflection point for US-Israeli relations, the likes of which has not been seen in years, or perhaps decades. 

It is now more than 30 years since former president Ronald Reagan allowed anti-Israel resolutions to pass at the UN after Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear facilities.

During their phone call, Obama said he told Netanyahu that "it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible."

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