Netanyahu Takes Iran Message to Congress After Obama Meeting

Netanyahu Takes Iran Message to Congress After Obama Meeting
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner listen at the U.S. Capitol on March 6, 2012. Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his campaign for stopping Iran’s nuclear program to Congress today after telling President Barack Obama his country must be free to decide whether to take military action.

Netanyahu, who met with Obama at the White House yesterday morning, ended the day with a speech to American Jewish leaders in which he said he won’t let Israel live in the “shadow of annihilation.”

While Netanyahu praised Obama for leading a campaign to toughen economic sanctions on Iran, he said such actions haven’t led Iran to curtail its nuclear program and Israel must be able to defend itself. Iran has said its nuclear development is for peaceful purposes, and the prospect of confrontation in a region with more than half the world’s oil reserves has helped send crude prices soaring.

“None of us can afford to wait much longer,” Netanyahu said before about 14,000 members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at the Washington Convention Center.

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and other Congressional leaders, wrapping up a five-day trip to the U.S. and Canada. At a photo opportunity with Senate leaders in advance of a luncheon at the Capitol today, Netanyahu was asked about a report that Israel had decided to strike Iran, and if he would comment about whether it’s true.

“My decision is not to talk about it,” he said.

The prime minister said in his White House meeting with Obama yesterday that Israel must remain “the master of its fate” in deciding whether a military strike is necessary to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Diplomatic Window

In public statements at the start of the meeting, 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” two days ago to Aipac, Netanyahu made clear that Israel retains the option of acting unilaterally. The Israeli leader 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.

Their meeting came as the U.S. and Israel consider their next steps to require Iran to give up ambitions to build a nuclear bomb. The European Union offered to restart negotiations with Iran. In a statement on behalf of China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S., EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear envoy, to meet her to seek a way for Iran to clarify questions about its nuclear program. The letter was a response to an Iranian overture last month to negotiate.

Setting Lines

Neither Obama nor Netanyahu set out a clear threshold that would trigger military action, and Netanyahu didn’t publicly endorse Obama’s call for patience.

“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 the pledge of support for Israel’s security that he made in his March 4 speech to the annual Washington policy conference of Aipac, the biggest pro-Israel organization in the U.S.

Seeking Tacit Support

“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. 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.”

Obama, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Netanyahu and his security adviser Yaakov Amidror met for about 90 minutes, with Obama and Netanyahu meeting alone for an additional half hour ahead of their lunch, said White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. In addition to Iran, the leaders discussed Syria and the Palestinian peace process, Vietor said.

Speaking to Aipac, Netanyahu warned against those who accept Iran’s assertion that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.

‘Nuclear Duck’

“If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, then what is it? That’s right, it’s a duck,” Netanyahu said. “But this time it’s a nuclear duck and it’s time the world starts calling the duck a duck.”

Obama has said he doesn’t 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 to yesterday’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 military decisions.

Oil Prices

Since hitting a low for the last 12 months on Oct. 4, 2011, crude oil has risen 39 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 for April delivery declined $1.86, or 1.7 percent, to $104.86 a barrel at 9:26 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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 in Washington and senior fellow for the Center for a New American Security, a policy group in Washington.

Obama and Netanyahu have been at odds since the start of Obama’s presidency. Obama, in an interview with the Atlantic magazine published last week, said he and Netanyahu have a “very functional” relationship.

Obama’s dealings with Israel and the threat posed by Iran has emerged in the U.S. presidential campaign. Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich delivered messages to the Aipac conference today.

Speaking by satellite to the group, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said he would “bring the current policy of procrastination to an end.”

“Hope is not a foreign policy,” Romney said. “The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve.”

Obama said all parties should consider the “weightiness of these issues” and warned that the approach in dealing with Iran must be deliberate.

‘Loose Talk’

“There is too much loose talk of war,” Obama said. “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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