Obama Tells Netanyahu Diplomacy May Still Derail Iran Threat

Obama Tells Netanyahu Diplomacy May Still Derail Iran Threat
President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they walk along the colonnade of the White House, on March 5, 2012. Photo: Israeli Government Press Office/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel must remain “the master of its fate” in deciding whether a military strike is necessary to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, even as President Barack Obama called for more time to let sanctions and diplomacy work.

In a meeting today at the White House, Obama told Netanyahu “there is still a window” for a diplomatic solution to the confrontation with Iran. He said the U.S. has a “rock solid” commitment to Israel’s security and that “all options” are available to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

While thanking Obama for delivering a “strong speech” yesterday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Netanyahu made clear that Israel retains the option of acting unilaterally against Iran. The Israeli leader also gave Obama a Megillah, the scroll Jews read on the holiday of Purim that tells the story of how they prevailed over a plot to kill them in ancient Persia, which is present-day Iran.

“My supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate,” Netanyahu said as he and Obama convened in the Oval Office.

Their meeting came as the U.S. and Israel are considering their next steps to force Iran to give up any ambitions to build a nuclear bomb. Neither leader set out a clear threshold that would trigger military action and Netanyahu didn’t publicly endorse Obama’s call for patience.

Iran Main Topic

“Israel has succeeded in raising Iran to the center of our discussions,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters in Hebrew following the meeting.

In his remarks, Obama reiterated his pledge of support for Israel’s security that he made yesterday in his speech to the annual Washington policy conference of Aipac, the biggest pro-Israel organization in the U.S. Netanyahu addresses the group tonight.

“We don’t know what they’re saying in private, but at least from what’s evident publicly, they don’t have agreed-upon red lines,” said Mark Heller, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“Netanyahu wants to be able to act with at least tacit American support,” Heller said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. “He’s trying to maximize prior coordination.”

‘Skeptical Israeli View’

“There’s a skeptical Israeli view that we do trust you if we’re certain that you support us, but we’re not certain of that yet,” Heller said.

Obama has said he does not support a policy of containment and takes “no options off the table” including a “military effort” to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Obama told Aipac that while Israel has the right to make its own decisions, sanctions need more time to work and “loose talk of war” is driving up the price of Iranian oil and jeopardizing U.S. and Israeli security.

David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center in Washington, said Obama’s public comments leading up to today’s meeting may have moved the U.S. and Israel somewhat closer by clarifying that Obama opposes containment, considers the Iran issue one of U.S. as well as Israeli national security and recognizes Israel’s right to make its own military decisions.

Oil Prices

Since hitting a low for the last 12 months on Oct. 4, 2011, crude oil has risen 41 percent, in part because of concerns about tensions in the Persian Gulf and higher demand spurred by economic growth in countries such as China and a strengthening recovery in the U.S. Crude oil for April delivery rose 45 cents, or 0.4 percent, to settle at $107.17 a barrel today on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical research. The U.S. and the European Union tightened economic sanctions following a Nov. 8, 2011, report by United Nations inspectors that Iran’s nuclear research program may include pursuing the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Because of the sanctions, Obama said Iran is isolated and its economy ground to almost a halt last year.

The U.S. and Israel see strategic value in a public posture that minimizes their differences even as Israel remains more concerned about running out of time to stop Iran from becoming nuclear-weapons capable, said Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in the Obama administration.

‘United Front’

“It’s in the interests of both parties to show somewhat of a united front if part of the goal is to compel Iran to change its position,” said Kahl, who has said it is premature for military action against Iran.

That unity signals to Iran that it “needs to take the prospect of pressure and maybe even a military strike down the road seriously,” said Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, a policy group in Washington.

Kahl said while the U.S. and Israel are trying to “negotiate the gray” areas, “there is a fair amount of agreement between both sides.”

Obama and Netanyahu have been at odds since the start of Obama’s presidency. Soon after taking office, Obama pushed Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas, in an effort to restart peace talks. Netanyahu has been approving more.

‘Very Functional’ Relationship

Last November, journalists at the Group of 20 summit in France overheard Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy discussing Netanyahu. Obama acknowledged Sarkozy’s dislike for Netanyahu by saying, “I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Obama, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine published last week, said he and Netanyahu have a “very functional” relationship.

Obama’s relationship with Israel and the threat posed by Iran also has emerged in the U.S. presidential campaign. Three Republican presidential candidates are scheduled to deliver messages to the Aipac conference.

Obama said all parties should consider the “weightiness of these issues” and the stakes for both the U.S. and Israel. He warned that the approach in dealing with Iran must be deliberate.

“Already, there is too much loose talk of war,” Obama said. “Such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.”

Obama’s position at the private meeting was consistent with his pledge to protect Israel’s security in his speech to Aipac.

“Nothing that he said inside contradicted what he said outside,” Netanyahu said.

Asked what meaning Obama should draw from the story of the ancient Jewish-Persian conflict recounted in Megillah, which Netanyahu gave him two days before the holiday begins, the Israeli leader smiled and declined to comment further.

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