A little more conversation
Mar 6th 2012, 15:11 by D.L. | JERUSALEM
THREE hours of somber private discussion between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday March 5th, which came after fulsome public reassurances by the president to the pro-Israel lobby the day before, appear to have reduced the chances that the Israeli prime minister will order an attack on Iran without a green light from America.
But though apparently less likely, an attack is still possible. “When it comes to Israel’s security,” Mr Netanyahu insisted at the start of the White House meeting, “Israel has the sovereign right to make its own decisions. I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.”
Mr Netanyahu said allowing Israel to make its own decisions when it comes to its security was one of two longstanding principles of American policy. The other was that “Israel must have the ability, always, to defend itself by itself against any threat.” He said, rather pointedly, that Mr Obama had reiterated these principles in his speech to the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) the day before.
In fact, the tenor of the president’s speech to the pro-Israel lobby, and his remarks to the press before going into his meeting with Mr Netanyahu, was quite the opposite. Mr Obama stressed repeatedly that neither Israel nor America should rush into a war against Iran, with the dangerous consequences that could ensue, but rather must give sanctions a chance to work on the Iranian regime. “We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” the president insisted before his meeting with Mr Netanyahu.
In his speech to AIPAC, the president did refer to Israel’s sovereign right to decide. But his remarks suggested he sees this more as a hypothetical reason for Iran to fear an Israeli strike than as a real and imminent danger of Israel acting alone, in defiance of America: “Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.”
In public and in private, Mr Obama has displayed real empathy with Israel’s perception of Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an existential threat to the Jewish state. “No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction,” he assured the AIPAC audience, stressing that he understood the “profound historical obligation” that weighs on Israel’s leaders.
Mr Obama acknowledged that Iran’s plans are a world problem and stressed that America recognises them as a direct threat to its own security interests, and, above all, that he will not allow Tehran to attain a bomb and will use force to prevent it if all else fails. “My policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons,” the president said on Monday. “And as I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are at the table, I mean it.”
For years, that is exactly what Israeli leaders have wanted Mr Obama, and Mr Bush before him, to say. Mr Obama said it louder and clearer than ever before. But Mr Netanyahu wanted more. At this advanced stage in Iran’s project—the International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Monday that Iran was not cooperating with its inspectors—the Israeli prime minister hoped to elicit from Mr Obama a definitive “red line” beyond which Iran would face American military action against its nuclear plants and facilities.
This the American president was not prepared to give. Israel’s own president, Shimon Peres, long an opponent of unilateral Israeli military action against Iran, sought to assure Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli public back home that no American president can give such a commitment to a foreign leader. Mr Peres, also in Washington for the AIPAC conference, said that Mr Obama’s speech to the lobby was as supportive of Israel as any made by an American leader. Israel could not wish for more; it should certainly not hold out for more.
But Mr Peres no longer carries the responsibility of policymaking. Mr Netanyahu does. And he is racked by the fear that Israel’s military capabilities, acting alone, to cripple or at least seriously damage the Iranian programme may soon weaken as more of Iran’s facilities are buried deep underground.
At that point the likelihood of Israeli unilateral action will fade. The power to prevent Iran reaching nuclear capability would then reside solely in America’s hands. Will America honour its promise?
“The very purpose of the Jewish state,” Mr Netanyahu declared in the Oval Office, “is to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that is why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.” Posturing? Tactics? Or the cri de coeur of an Israeli leader weighed down by the tragedies of Jewish history? The guessing game goes on.