An imaginary, misleading ‘debate’ between President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu
By Glenn Kessler,
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama at the White House. ISRAELI GPO/GETTY IMAGES
DEBATE MODERATOR: “Welcome to the first debate between Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. President, we’ll start with you.”
OBAMA: “I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs.”
MODERATOR: “Mr. President, thank you. Mr. Prime Minister, your response.”
NETANYAHU: “The Jewish state will not allow those who seek our destruction to possess the means to achieve that goal. A nuclear armed Iran must be stopped.”
MODERATOR: “Mr President, your rebuttal.”
OBAMA: “Obviously there are some differences between us.”
ANNOUNCER: “Friends, Americans and Israel cannot afford four more years of Barack Obama. This call was paid for by the Emergency Committee for Israel because your vote will make the difference in this election.”
— Text of a “robocall” message sponsored by the Emergency Committee for Israel
The Fact Checker was surprised to hear this “debate,” using the actual voices of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, when he answered his home phone earlier this week. We did a little digging, and this has got to be one of the most ridiculous attacks in an increasingly bitter campaign. Let’s see how the Emergency Committee for Israel cut and snipped this call together.
Obama’s first statement sounds rather weak and feckless during the robocall, but it changes dramatically when viewed in its proper context — a presidential news conference held on June 23, 2009, to condemn the attacks by the Iranian government on pro-democracy demonstrators. Obama’s point is that the pro-democracy activists were not being directed by the United States, as the Iranian government had claimed. The sentence used in the call is highlighted in bold.
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody. Good afternoon, everybody. Today, I want to start by addressing three issues, and then I’ll take your questions.
First, I’d like to say a few words about the situation in Iran. The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.
I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.
The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran — some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the election. These accusations are patently false. They’re an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran’s borders. This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they — and only they — will choose.
The Netanyahu quote was made nearly three years later, in a 2012 speech at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee. Again, we will put the quote in context. Just moments before Netanyahu made this statement, he said that Obama and Israel have “exactly the same policy” on deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
I do want to talk to you about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. I want to explain why Iran must never be allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
President Obama has reiterated his commitment to prevent that from happening. He stated clearly that all options are on the table, and that American policy is not containment.
Well, Israel has exactly the same policy — We are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; we leave all options on the table; and containment is definitely not an option.
The Jewish state will not allow those who seek our destruction to possess the means to achieve that goal. A nuclear armed Iran must be stopped.
Finally, Obama’s “rebuttal” that there are “differences” between the two men had nothing to with Iran. Instead, the line was lifted from a 2011 joint news conference with Netanyahu, in which Obama discussed a speech he had given that referenced the 1967 de facto border between Israel and the Palestinians. Here is that sentence in context:
We discussed the issue of a prospective peace between Israelis and Palestinians. And I reiterated and we discussed in depth the principles that I laid out yesterday — the belief that our ultimate goal has to be a secure Israeli state, a Jewish state, living side by side in peace and security with a contiguous, functioning and effective Palestinian state.
Obviously there are some differences between us in the precise formulations and language, and that’s going to happen between friends. But what we are in complete accord about is that a true peace can only occur if the ultimate resolution allows Israel to defend itself against threats, and that Israel’s security will remain paramount in U.S. evaluations of any prospective peace deal.
I said that yesterday in the speech, and I continue to believe it. And I think that it is possible for us to shape a deal that allows Israel to secure itself, not to be vulnerable, but also allows it to resolve what has obviously been a wrenching issue for both peoples for decades now.
I also pointed out, as I said in the speech yesterday, that it is very difficult for Israel to be expected to negotiate in a serious way with a party that refuses to acknowledge its right to exist.
Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, responded to our query about the accuracy of the robocall with a joke: “We don’t have all the secret Obama Netanyahu debate recordings yet — but we expect to obtain one or two more, and we look forward to making them available as well.”
The Pinocchio Test
In sum, the Emergency Committee has twisted the meaning of Obama’s and Netanyahu’s words. An Obama statement condemning Iran’s government is rendered into weak-kneed “respect” for Iran, while a Netanyahu expression of U.S.-Israel solidarity on Iran is turned into a point of disagreement.
One could have legitimate concerns about Obama’s handling of relations with Israel or the nuclear ambitions of Iran. But there is no excuse for such an Orwellian descent into falsehoods and misrepresentation. Some readers might actually be misled into believing this was an actual debate between the two men.
This is one of those days when we wish we were not limited to just Four Pinocchios.
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