Why expectations for next week should be kept to a minimum.
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be meeting in Washington, D.C. on Monday March 5th. This meeting is likely to be their most critical one to date. The Iranian nuclear problem, and the need for a definitive response, are expected to dominate their discussions. Israel believes that time is quickly running out for non-military means such as economic sanctions to stop Iran from being able to build a nuclear bomb at will. The Obama administration is saying "not so fast" and to give sanctions more of a chance to work.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is expected to publicly express a hard line against Iran during the meeting, according to a senior Israeli official quoted by Haaretz. Netanyahu will reportedly press for American support for firm action beyond the vague declaration that all options remain on the table. He wants Obama to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain "red lines," according to this Israeli official. Obama is unlikely to go anywhere close to making such a public declaration or to openly back Israel if it decides to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.
The United States and Israel do agree on two basic points. They agree that Iran is intent on achieving a nuclear arms capability and is moving full-steam ahead with its nuclear program. They also agree that there will come a point when it will probably be too late to stop Iran from achieving its objective.
Inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have confirmed that there is a sound basis for these concerns in their latest report. They concluded that Iran is pushing ahead with its nuclear program while stonewalling the agency’s efforts to investigate allegations that Iran’s scientists had conducted extensive research on how to build a nuclear warhead. When IAEA inspectors visited Iran recently, Iranian officials refused to allow them to visit a key research facility where some of the alleged experiments were said to have occurred.
However, while sharing concerns about Iran's advancement towards becoming a nuclear power, the United States and Israel disagree on the urgency of the problem and the timing of any military action to counter it. They differ on the precise point when it will become too late to stop Iran from producing a nuclear bomb and whether Iran can be successfully contained even if it is not stopped in time. "We believe that there is time and space to allow for a diplomatic resolution," White House press secretary Jay Carney said last month.
No meeting will paper over these differences as long as Obama, who has yet to visit Israel as president while managing to find time to visit Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, fails to fully appreciate the threat that Israel is confronting. He fails to understand Israel's acute sense of vulnerability against hostile forces determined to destroy the Jewish state by any means possible and Israel's fierce determination to protect itself at any cost. Nor does he seem to understand that the direct threat a nuclear armed Iran would pose to Israel today will become a direct threat to the United States in the not too distant future if the jihadist megalomaniacs now ruling Iran or their like-minded successors remain in charge.
In short, Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat. No wonder, considering the Iranian leaders' repeated calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state, Iran's proximity to Israel, and the ease with which Iran's surrogates in the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations can be used to help carry out its plans for Israel's destruction.
On the other hand, while the Obama administration views a nuclear-armed Iran as a very serious threat to regional peace and security, it does not view a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to the United States itself or to the free world generally. It believes that even a successful military strike would only delay Iran's nuclear program for a few years and would almost certainly set off a firestorm of violence in the Middle East and elsewhere with dangerously unpredictable consequences for America's strategic interests. That is why President Obama and his top officials have been urging Israel not to take precipitous unilateral military action.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli intelligence and director of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, discussed this difference of perspective in his op-ed article published by the New York Times on March 1st. The article is entitled "Israel’s Last Chance to Strike Iran":
Today, Israel sees the prospect of a nuclear Iran that calls for our annihilation as an existential threat. An Israeli strike against Iran would be a last resort, if all else failed to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. That moment of decision will occur when Iran is on the verge of shielding its nuclear facilities from a successful attack — what Israel’s leaders have called the 'zone of immunity'...
Israel doesn’t have the safety of distance, nor do we have the United States Air Force’s advanced fleet of bombers and fighters. America could carry out an extensive air campaign using stealth technology and huge amounts of ammunition, dropping enormous payloads that are capable of hitting targets and penetrating to depths far beyond what Israel’s arsenal can achieve.
This gives America more time than Israel in determining when the moment of decision has finally been reached. And as that moment draws closer, differing timetables are becoming a source of tension...
Asking Israel’s leaders to abide by America’s timetable, and hence allowing Israel’s window of opportunity to be closed, is to make Washington a de facto proxy for Israel’s security — a tremendous leap of faith for Israelis faced with a looming Iranian bomb.
Israel has a fleet of advanced F-16 fighter planes. Its military has repeatedly shown incredible ingenuity in retrofitting imported military equipment with Israeli technology to meet Israel's own military strategies. Israel also has some bunker-busting bombs, which were supplied by the Obama administration. However, Israel obviously does not have the most advanced military capabilities that the U.S. has to reach all or most of Iran's widely dispersed and deeply buried nuclear development facilities. Nevertheless, as Israel's past pre-emptive actions demonstrate, such as destroying much of the Egyptian air force at the outset of the Six-Day War, the bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 and the destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Israeli leaders will do whatever they believe they have to do to protect the Jewish nation from what they regard as existential threats.
The Obama-Netanyahu meeting next week will likely result in a communiqué indicating both leaders' strong resolve to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Indeed, according to the Haaretz report, the White House has proposed to the Prime Minister's Office that the two leaders release a joint statement following their meeting, the goal of which, according to the report, would be "to bridge apparent disagreements between the United States and Israel, and to present a single U.S.-Israeli front in order to leverage pressure on Iran."
The joint statement may ratchet up the rhetoric a bit regarding the use of military force as a last resort option. But if Prime Minister Netanyahu is hoping for something much more concrete, such as Obama's unequivocal public support for Israel if it decides it must take military action alone to defend itself or, alternatively, a public ironclad American assurance that the United States will do whatever is necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran before it is too late, I think he will be disappointed.
If history is any guide, regardless of whether Obama pledges unequivocal support for whatever Israel decides to do to defend itself or hints to Netanyahu privately that the United States will not stand in Israel's way, Israel will most likely choose to act against Iran while it still can.
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