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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met President Barack Obama at the White House on March 5th for a critical meeting focusing on the impending nuclear crisis in Iran. The differences between the two leaders on how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were barely mentioned this time.
Prior to their meeting, Obama re-affirmed what he had said the day before to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons,” he promised. Obama also reiterated that “the United States will always have Israel’s back.”
Netanyahu pointed to the common bond between Israel and the United States, and the threat the two allies shared in common from Iran:
“Americans know that Israel and the United States share common values, that we defend common interests and that we face common enemies. Iran’s leaders know that too. For them you’re the Great Satan, we’re the Little Satan. For them, we are you and you are us. And you know something, Mr. President? At least on this last point I think they’re right. We are you and you are us. We’re together. … Israel and America stand together.”
The three-hour meeting in the Oval Office was described as “friendly, straightforward, and serious” by an unnamed White House official quoted by the New York Times. The mood during the meeting was said to be somber and business-like, but less icy between the two leaders than during previous meetings. Netanyahu thanked Obama afterwards for the “warm hospitality.”
Netanyahu reportedly told Obama that Israel had not yet made a decision on striking Iran. Nevertheless, while appreciating President Obama’s pledge to prevent the Iranians from building a nuclear bomb rather than rely on a policy of after-the-fact containment, Netanyahu left no doubt that Israel was prepared to act alone if necessary to neutralize the Iranian threat to Israel’s very existence.
Key differences were apparently not resolved during the meeting. Obama still believes there is a window for sanctions and the blacklisting of Iran’s central bank to work in pressuring Tehran back to the bargaining table. He tried to persuade Netanyahu to give these measures and diplomacy more time before deciding whether to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Netanyahu does not like the odds that such pressure tactics would work. He expressed deep skepticism that diplomacy and sanctions alone would persuade Iran’s leaders to forsake the development of nuclear weapons. He also made Israel’s case that negotiations proposed by Iran should not resume unless Iran agreed first to a verifiable suspension of its uranium enrichment activities. Obama has not appeared willing to make such suspension a pre-condition to re-opening talks with Iran.
A key difference between Obama and Netanyahu on Iran is over timing of a possible military attack. When will it be time to move beyond diplomacy and sanctions, and take military action? The Obama administration is willing to wait until there is clear evidence that Iran is actually in the process of building one or more nuclear bombs. Israel’s leaders believe waiting that long – even if it were possible to detect such bomb-building activity occurring deeply underground – is a gamble that Israel cannot afford to take.
According to the White House official quoted by the New York Times, Netanyahu did not press Obama on this specific timing point during their discussions. Evidently, Netanyahu saw no benefit in precipitating a dispute with the United States at this time over whether or where to set a firm “red line” beyond which military action would be taken. In effect, for the purposes of their March 5th White House meeting at least, Obama and Netanyahu agreed to disagree.
However, whatever pressure the president and Obama administration officials are putting on Israel privately to stand down until the United States gives its go-ahead, Prime Minister Netanyahu will not agree to put the fate of Israel in the hands of the United States to decide.
Instead, he chose to focus on President Obama’s public statement of support for Israel’s “sovereign right to make its own decisions” when it comes to defending its own people, which Obama expressed during his AIPAC speech on Sunday. In his own speech to AIPAC on Monday evening, Netanyahu said that Israel “must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself against any threats. As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”
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