Obama Meets Netanyahu as Warmer Relations Face Iran Test

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet today as the contacts between Obama and Iran’s president test the improved relationship of the U.S. and Israeli leaders.

Netanyahu is visiting Obama in Washington a day before he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the forum where a year ago he said Israel can’t abide Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu has voiced skepticism about Iran’s motives for reaching out to Obama and the West, and urged U.S. and international leaders not to be fooled.

“I will tell the truth in the face of the sweet-talk and the onslaught of smiles,” Netanyahu told reporters in Israel yesterday before boarding his plane to the U.S. “Telling the truth today is vital for the security and peace of the world and, of course, it is vital for the security of the State of Israel.”

The White House talks also coincide with U.S.-led efforts to push forward Israel’s peace process with the Palestinians and the removal of chemical weapons from Syria, on Israel’s northeastern border.

The Sept. 27 call between Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the highest-level U.S.-Iranian encounter since before Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.

During his visit to the UN in New York last week, Rouhani expressed interest in renewed discussions that might ease the international sanctions imposed to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is seeking to do so, saying its enrichment program is for peaceful purposes.

Keeping Sanctions

Obama said after the phone call with the Iranian leader that there may be the “basis for a resolution” on the nuclear program and that Rouhani “indicated that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.”

Sanctions on Iran will remain in effect until Iran satisfies UN Security Council resolutions and commits to only seeking nuclear power for peaceful purposes, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” program broadcast yesterday.

“We and others in the international community have every reason to be skeptical of that and we need to test it, and any agreement must be fully verifiable and enforceable,” Rice said.

Obama’s relations with Netanyahu have been strengthened in the past year with improved cooperation, said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who advises Netanyahu on Israeli-U.S. relations.

In Common

“The relationship between Prime Minster Netanyahu and President Obama is better than it’s ever been,” he said. “The start of peace talks with the Palestinians has helped Netanyahu’s position vis-a-vis the White House, and that only improves when members of his cabinet or party criticize him on the negotiations.

“Both Israel and the U.S. have come to understand that they have so much in common on the real issues in the Middle East,” he said. “The tension we saw a few years ago between the two leaders was before the Syrian situation, the Egyptian situation, and both sides understand now they need each other more.”

A year ago, Netanyahu stood before the UN General Assembly displaying a cartoon diagram of a bomb after openly disagreeing with the Obama administration about how to curb Iran’s nuclear program. He said there were “red lines” that would trigger military action if Iran crossed them.

In the months that followed, Obama and Netanyahu each won re-election and set about improving their relationship. When Obama traveled to Israel in March, the two men embraced and made mutually supportive public statements.

‘Absolutely Convinced’

Netanyahu said he was “absolutely convinced” of Obama’s resolve to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb. Obama placed wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated by a Jewish opponent of his landmark accords with the Palestinians.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s former adviser on Iran who is now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Rouhani “has launched a charm offensive.” Netanyahu will be asking, “Where’s the beef? He’s going to want to have a sense of what the strategy is and how it’s changed” for the U.S.

“I expect the president to say, ’Look, I’m not going to be fooled by smiles; I’m not going to be taken in by cosmetic moves,’” Ross said.

Improved Relationship

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center in Washington and Middle East adviser to several U.S. administrations, said while Rouhani’s outreach does create some new tension, the Obama-Netanyahu visit is “a reflection of a much-improved relationship between the two” and “by and large, I think this relationship has gotten over its dysfunctional stage.”

Rouhani threatens Netanyahu’s “own internal analysis and his public narrative about evil mullahs. But those worries aside, the odds of a U.S. deal with the mullahs that undercuts Israel on the nuclear issue and leaves them unhappy, nervous and out in the cold are slim to none. No matter how desperate or intrigued Obama may be for a deal with Iran, he can’t and won’t sacrifice the Israelis on the altar of that expediency,” he said.

Netanyahu’s tough response to Rouhani’s overtures has drawn some criticism internationally and within Israel, even from members of his government. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the second-biggest faction in Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, said the prime minister’s decision to have the Israeli UN delegation walk out on Rouhani’s General Assembly speech made Israel look like “a serial refuser of negotiations, as being not interested in solutions on the road to peace.”

Danny Ayalon, a former deputy foreign minister and ex-ambassador to the U.S., said, “Israel’s main concern is a repetition of the U.S. experience with North Korea.”

“During the 1990s, North Korea was in the same position as Iran now, and the U.S. offered them a path of nuclear disarmament, allowing them only civilian nuclear use,” he said. “And despite this, the North Koreans continued to develop a bomb and eventually tested it. So we’ve been here before.”

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