How Obama overcame the harsh rhetoric of Binyamin Netanyahu and others on Iran – and came out ahead
Binyamin Netanyahu invoked the Holocaust and said the threat of bombs is the only thing Iran’s mullahs really understand. Barack Obama chided “loose talk of war” by Israel and campaign trail generals at home too eager to spill American blood.
But as the smoke cleared on this week’s noisy wrangling between the US and Israeli leaders over Tehran’s nuclear programme, the American president emerged with a precious commodity: time.
Obama also established a position his critics may find hard to assail. He forced those many members of Congress and beyond who have conflated America’s interests with Israel’s on to the back foot by saying that on Iran there are differences – and he will serve US interests first.
Aaron David Miller, who served six US secretaries of state as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations, said that Obama deflected Netanyahu’s attempts to lay the trip wire for military action.
“The president said to the prime minister it’s a fact that Israel’s a sovereign country, like America’s a sovereign country. No one is going to be able to constrain the right of a sovereign country to defend itself. But Obama made it unmistakeably clear to Netanyahu that an Israeli attack now is ill-advised, premature, will not produce a result and is likely to undermine not only Israeli interests but American interests,” he said.
“On the one hand he wants to reassure the Israelis. He’s clearly toughening up his rhetoric, both signalling to the Iranians he’s taking this issue seriously but not creating a sense in the minds of the Israelis that we’re sliding toward war or that he’s greenlighting an Israeli military attack. He’s not.
“For the moment Obama’s bought time; time to see whether pressure plus negotiations can’t create what we haven’t had, which is a meaningful pathway to get Iran off the military dimensions of its military programme.The bad news is that he’s also locking himself in to a situation where he may well have to confront a military option down the road.”
Israel’s prime minister arrived in the US determined to press Obama to agree to “red lines” in Iran’s nuclear programme that would trigger an attack. For his part, the US president was looking for a guarantee from the Israeli leader that there would be no bombing without American approval.
Netanyahu was confident. At his back was the US’s most influential pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), which had been instrumental in whipping up demands in Congress for stronger sanctions against Iran and resolutions that looked mighty close to authorisations for war.
The Republican presidential candidates were snapping at Obama’s heels, accusing him of weakness and indecision over Tehran, and of not being supportive enough of Israel.
Netanyahu made an emotional appeal in his speech to Aipac’s annual conference, the reason the Israeli leader was in town. He invoked the Holocaust and the betrayal of Europe’s Jews by the Allies’ refusal to bomb Auschwitz.
At the White House, Netanyahu presented Obama with a copy of the Book of Esther which relates the story, celebrated in this week’s holiday of Purim, of a 5th-century plot to destroy the Jews of Persia, now Iran.
It is, Netanyahu said, the account of “a Persian anti-Semite [who] tried to annihilate the Jewish people”. In the end, it is the Persians who are slaughtered.
The message wasn’t hard to deconstruct. But Obama wasn’t having it.
The president sought to reassure the Israelis that he would not compromise with Iran on a nuclear weapon. There would be no policy of containment, he said. That was important to Israel along with Obama’s firm restatement of the military option being on the table.
But beyond that, the president put a marker down that his assessment is that war is a final and relatively distant option for the US, and that an Israeli attack before that is against American interests.
“The narrative emerging from Obama is that this war is not in America’s interests,” said Daniel Levy, a former political advisor to Israeli cabinet ministers. “The message to the American people is: who do you want to trust, our intelligence or a foreign country’s intelligence? Our generals or a foreign country’s generals? What’s this going to do to our economy. What’s this going to do to the prices you pay at the pumps?”
Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, said the message hit home in the Jewish state.
Obama “said Iran was not an Israeli problem but an American one. The Obama doctrine is that the US only goes to war when its security interests are in danger. And the Obama doctrine calls for international consensus before going to war,” he said.
“Obama wants separation and space from Netanyahu on this because the president has concluded that it is not in America’s interests, to say the least, for the Israelis to launch a strike at Iranian nuclear sites,” he said. “That message was delivered.”
In his speech to Aipac, Obama took aim at Israel for “too much loose talk of war”.
The Jewish state’s more ardent supporters in the west, ever ready to play down differences between the White House and the Israeli leadership, tried to deny Obama’s comments were aimed at Netanyahu’s government. But the president’s warning that such talk was driving up oil prices and so helping fund Iran’s nuclear programme suggested he wasn’t talking about the armchair generals in the Republican party but the real ones in Jerusalem.
Levy argues that Obama’s stand will strengthen the hand of influential voices inside Israel, such as the former heads of Israel’s intelligence service, Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy, who are opposed to an attack on Iran in the near future.
Dagan this week crossed Netanyahu by saying it is wrong to portray the Iranian government as irrational and that he trusts the US to make the call on whether or not to attack.
“An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way,” he told CBS. “[Obama] said openly that the military option is on the table and he is not going to let Iran become a nuclear state and from my experience, I usually trust the president of the US.”
That view is shared by many Israelis. A poll by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week showed that 58% of the population opposes a strike on Iran without US backing.
There has also been strong criticism inside Israel of Netanyahu’s invoking of the Holocaust. The opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, called it “hysterical” and said that it scared Israelis and cast the Jewish state as weak.
“We are not in the ghetto and there is no place for Holocaust comparisons,” said Livni. “The nation of Israel is strong. The Jewish nation today has the brains and the ability to stop our enemies. We don’t need to create an atmosphere of Holocaust threats and annihilation to scare the citizens.”
Two former Israeli military chiefs – Shaul Mofaz and Dan Halutz – also condemned Netanyahu’s use of Holocaust imagery as a justification for attack.
“We are not kings of the world,” Halutz said. “We should remember who we are.”
After their White House meeting, Netanyahu kept up his sniping at Obama. The president has said repeatedly that American intelligence indicates that Iran has not made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon and is not doing so as yet.
The Israeli prime minister took aim at that view in his speech to Aipac.
“Amazingly, some people refuse to acknowledge that Iran’s goal is to develop nuclear weapons,” he said. “You see, Iran claims that it’s enriching uranium to develop medical research. Yeah, right.”
Netanyahu also scorned Obama over sanctions, saying that the only time Iran responded to pressure over its nuclear programme was when it was backed by the threat of attack.
Yet for all the rhetoric, Miller said Netanyahu will be carefully considering his next steps.
“I would be very surprised if you saw military action by Israel this year unless there was some escalatory cycle set in motion,” he said.
But Miller added that while Obama has bought time, he has not bought a solution.
“Without a diplomatic fix, and without sanctions that will restrain Tehran, and I don’t think they will, we’re sliding toward a situation where at some point I suspect the Israelis will feel compelled to act,” he said.
Yadlin said Netanyahu’s difficulty is timing.
“The timeline of the US is not the same as the timeline of Israel. Israel is very close to the time when a tough decision has to be made,” he said.
The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, said this week that the US has much greater firepower than Israel, implying that even if Iran moves its nuclear programme in to the underground facilities at Qom they are not beyond the reach of American weapons. But they may be beyond Israel’s military capabilities.
Netanyahu’s dilemma will be to decide whether to defy Obama or leave it to the US to decide if and when the time is right for the military option.
“If he leaves it, Netanyahu will have to put his faith and trust in Obama’s willingness later to do the job for him,” said Miller. “It puts an Israeli prime minister – particularly this one who’s identified the Iranian threat years ago and has beaten the drum on it ever since – in a very difficult position.”
With additional reporting by Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
from Chris McGreal