The Israeli PM did not hear all he wanted on Iran in Obama’s speech to Aipac. It’s unlikely Monday’s meeting will yield more
When Binyamin Netanyahu enters the White House Monday for his ninth meeting with President Barack Obama, he may well feel a mixture of infuriation and satisfaction.
The infuriation is because, despite his and others’ best efforts over recent weeks, Israel has failed to push the US administration into a clear commitment to military action against Iran if the Islamic republic crosses specified “red lines”. On top of this, the Israelis had to endure public chastisement over their incessant war chatter: “too much loose talk” only benefits the Iranians; “now is not the time for bluster”.
The satisfaction comes from the success that Netanyahu’s relentless focus on the Iranian nuclear issue, and the Israelis’ repeated threats to launch a unilateral military strike, has had in pushing the issue of a peace deal with the Palestinians way down the agenda. Compared to Obama’s speech to Congress last May, when he incensed Netanyahu by talking about a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, the president devoted only a few lines to the peace process in Sunday’s speech. And that was mainly to explain and justify his own actions.
But, overall, the speech did not deliver for Bibi. Obama stressed the importance of diplomacy and sanctions, which must be given time to have an impact: “the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons.” Even his statement that he would “not hesitate to use force when it is necessary” came with riders about timing, circumstances and the need “to defend the United States and its interests”.
Netanyahu, who is to address the Aipac conference Monday evening, issued a brief statement after Obama spoke. In three sentences, he said he appreciated the president’s comments four times, including “perhaps most important of all, I appreciated the fact that he said that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” This was perhaps a reminder that Israel may yet go it alone.
The clear differences that remain between the two leaders, and the personal antipathy that exists between them, are likely to be close to the surface during today’s meetings: first, with their teams; then, one to one; and then, a formal lunch. No press conference is scheduled; a plan for joint statement bit the dust a few days ago.
Having spent the past few weeks demanding a clear framework for US military action, the Israelis are now rushing to say they expected no such thing. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres – whose life story and achievements featured heavily in Obama’s speech – praised the address, saying the US leader had offered as much as was possible, and it was preposterous to expect a timetable to be laid down.
“I don’t expect someone to say when they will do this, and when they will do that, not us or them. It’s not done,” Peres told Israel’s Army Radio. “He didn’t talk about dates, but he spoke about actions.”
Reaction to Obama’s speech in the Israeli press was mixed. Sima Kadmon, in Yedioth Ahronoth, put a positive gloss on the speech, saying Obama had given more time to resolve the Iranian problem by diplomacy and sanctions:
“In other words: calm down. You can come out of your shelters. Obama has promised that there will not be a war in the spring.”
The odd thing about this is that it was not the US threatening a war in the spring, and more time is not what Israel wants. But Amir Oren, writing in the liberal daily Haaretz, said the subtext of the president’s words were unmistakeable.
“A strong commitment to Israel? Assuredly. Capitulation to the dictates of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu? Not a chance. After a speech like that, his meeting with Netanyahu today is almost superfluous: It already seems clear that Obama is determined not to grant him anything.”
In contrast, Palestinian politician Hanan Ashwari said Obama had done everything Israel wanted for the past three years. The Palestinian leadership, she said, was disappointed in the president’s focus on Iran rather than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “We know it was an election speech, it was in order to win votes and influence people, but we have many comments as to whether he is running for office in Israel or the US,” she told reporters in Ramallah.
from Harriet Sherwood