April 19, 2010— -- Amid recent tensions between the United States and close ally Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for President Obama and the international community to consider "crippling sanctions" to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.
In an exclusive interview with "Good Morning America's" George Stephanopoulos, the Israeli prime minister said the possibility that Iran could develop a nuclear weapons program is the "biggest issue facing our times."
Last week China agreed in principle that it would join the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to support sanctions against Iran, which the Obama administration officials have said they hope will be passed before the end of April.
But while Netanyahu wants sanctions to be effective, he has doubts and said the international community could deliver tougher ones if they chose to.
"If you stop…Iran from importing…petroleum, that's a fancy word for gasoline, then Iran simply doesn't have refining capacity and this regime comes to a halt. I think that's crippling sanctions," Netanyahu said.
China and Russia do not support harsh sanctions against Iran, but Netanyahu instead suggested going outside the U.N. Security Council for support.
"There's a coalition of the willing and you can have very powerful sanctions. I think this is a minimal requirement right now to not really to send messages but to actually make this regime begin to make choices. Because right now they feel they don't have to make choices," Netanyahu said. "They understand that the spotlight is on them but they're not doing anything."
Netanyahu: Israel Reserves the Right to Defend Itself
Members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have said they would be willing to back petroleum sanctions, but Obama has not publicly agreed to support them yet.
"The United States has said…that they're determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And I think that's an important statement," Netanyahu said.
The Israeli PM said it is his preference that the United States and the international community stop Iran's nuclear weapons program, but added Israel is willing to defend itself should it become necessary.
"We're in the eve of Israel's Independence Day. And the fortunes of the Jewish people were such that we could never defend ourselves until we reestablish the Jewish state. We paid a horrible price in the Holocaust and before the Holocaust. And of course the changes that there is a Jewish state now that always reserves the right to defend the Jewish nation," Netanyahu said.
Israel's call for tougher action against Iran comes at a low point in relations between the U.S. and its close ally over differences in the Middle East peace process.
Last month Vice President Biden was taken by surprise when during his visit to Jerusalem the Israelis announced new settlements would be built in East Jerusalem, prompting Palestinians to postpone the indirect talks.
"That decision in my view undermined the trust required for productive negotiations, so I, and at the request of the President Obama, condemned it immediately and unequivocally," Biden said in response to Israel's announcement.
Nearly two weeks later Netanyahu and Obama had a tense meeting at the White House, although officials from both Israel and the U.S. refused to discuss the private meetings.
Tensions Between the United States and Israel
It was reported, however, that Obama made several demands during that meeting, such as Israel must freeze the settlements in East Jerusalem and be ready to discuss substantive issues including borders and Palestinian refugees during the indirect peace talks with the Palestinians.
Obama has called for a freeze in the development of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods in part because they are next to Palestinian neighborhoods and are not contiguous to other settlements.
But Netanyahu, who faces opposition to those demands from within his government, said those reports were just assumptions.
"One, I don't know how the meeting was perceived but I don't think there was any such intention on the part of the president. I think we have some outstanding issues. We're trying to resolve them through diplomatic channels in the best way that we can," the PM said. "Second, on the question of Jerusalem we've had, not my personal policy but the policy of all governments, including Yitzhak Rabin's, Golda Meir's, Shimon Peres, for the last 42 years…the Palestinian demand is that we prevent Jews from building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. That is, you know, that is an unacceptable demand."
This past week Obama wrapped up a two-day nuclear summit at the White House with leaders from 47 countries. Although Netanyahu was scheduled to attend, he cancelled his trip the week before, reportedly because Egypt and Turkey intended to raise the issue of Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons program.
Stephanopoulos asked Netanyahu what would happen if Obama were to put the United States' version of a peace plan on the table, as some have advised. But the prime minister said that "an imposed settlement" would not have merit.
"I don't believe anyone will seriously think that you can impose peace. Peace has to come from the parties sitting down with each other, resolving their differences. And this is what we want to achieve," Netanyahu said.
But despite these recent events Netanyahu tried to downplay any tension between the two countries.
"I think with any family, with any relationship, the relationship of allies, even your relatives, you have ups and downs. You have disagreements. But I think this relationship between the United States of America and the people of Israel is rock solid," Netanyahu said. "We have a great I would say a great conformity of interests and values that will get us through this. And we'll try to work out the disagreements in a way that is commensurate with that spirit."