WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House says Israel's security depends in part on its ability to court Arab public opinion, as the strongman leaders it long depended on give way to democratically elected governments that may be more hostile to the Jewish state.
"There is now a situation in which Israel can't count on just a few autocrats holding everything together in the neighborhood," President Barack Obama told an Israeli television station in an interview. "Israel has an interest in being able to speak to the Arab street."
The president's words likely offered a preview of his message to Israelis when he arrives there next week. He will also meet with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and travel to Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the region.
The Middle East has changed rapidly since Obama last visited the region in 2009, with the Arab Spring movement roiling Egypt and other nations, and Syria consumed by violence.
Israel is particularly concerned about tumult in Egypt, with which it has a decades-old peace treaty. Egyptians protesters ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011, paving the way for the election of Islamist Mohammed Morsi of the anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi has promised to abide by the peace treaty, but his earlier inflammatory comments about Jews have raised concerns in the U.S. and Israel.
The White House on Thursday put some of the responsibility for softening the views of the Arab world on the Israelis themselves. Israel's continued settlement building in the Palestinian territories in particular has angered neighboring nations.
"As you move toward more democratic, more representative and responsive governments, Israel needs to take into account the changing dynamic and the need to reach out to public opinion across the region," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
While the White House says a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians remains Obama's goal, the president will not be launching a broad new effort when he arrives in the region next week. Such a step is seen as premature given the chasm that remains between the parties and that Israel's new government will just be taking shape when Obama arrives.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was weakened in his country's recent elections, reached a deal to form a coalition Thursday. It marks the first time in a decade that ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties will be excluded.
With low expectations for jump-starting peace talks, Obama and Netanyahu are expected to focus on regional issues, including the violence in Syria and Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Obama, in his interview with Israeli TV, said Iran is about a year away from developing a nuclear weapon. He said that while he prefers using diplomacy over force to prevent that from happening, all options remain on the table.
"Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don't want to cut it too close," he said. "So when I'm consulting with Bibi (Netanyahu) as I have over the last several years on this issue, my message to him will be the same as before: 'If we can resolve it diplomatically, that is a more lasting solution. But if not, I continue to keep all options on the table.'"
The timeline for action against Iran has been one of the most fraught disputes in an already tense relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. Israel has repeatedly threatened to act militarily should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb, while the U.S. has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic sanctions to run their course. Netanyahu has signaled that the coming months present a point of no return in dealing with Iran.
Obama nonetheless took a stern tone toward Iran in the half-hour long interview.
"What I have also said is that there is a window, not an infinite period of time, but a window of time where we can resolve this diplomatically and it is in all of our interests" to do this, he said. "They (Iran) are not yet at the point, I think, where they have made a fundamental decision to get right with the international community. ... I do think they are recognizing that there is a severe cost to continue on the path they are on and that there is another door open."
Heller reported from Jerusalem.