Mixed messages in US-Israel dispute over Iran
Comment: Secret negotiations between Obama, Netanyahu can put an end to the foolish dispute between the leaders.
Netanyahu and Obama at the White House. Photo: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
The latest public exchanges between the United States and Israel reveal that US
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are in disagreement
While Netanyahu may have been too aggressive in his talks
about the situation in Iran and the potential for a military strike, Obama felt
the need to respond to every statement, ratcheting up the tension between the
Obama acts as though the most important war he is waging is against
Netanyahu, not the one he should be conducting against Iran. His rage over what
he sees as Netanyahu’s support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
is apparently driving him up the wall.
Perhaps Obama is annoyed by the
pressure Netanyahu exerted on him to come up with a firmer commitment to stop
Iran, but his refusal to meet Netanyahu during his forthcoming visit to the US,
and the ridiculous reason his people gave, scheduling problems, is childish and
Meanwhile, the Iranians are mocking the ability of these
leaders to present a unified message.
The US has sent frequent mixed and
contradicting messages on Iran. While all of Obama’s spokespeople explain how
supportive the president is of Israel and its security needs, and how determined
he is to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program, his chief advisers have made
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen.
Martin Dempsey, says he does not want American forces to be complicit in any
Israeli strike in Iran, exposing Obama’s reluctance to use force against the
Islamic Republic even after the US elections in November.
Joseph Biden also raised questions about Obama’s determination to stop Iran
after the elections. In an election speech, he accused Romney of being ready to
go to war in Iran, implying that Obama is not.
On the same day that
Yediot Aharonot reported that the US indirectly conveyed a message to Iran –
according to which it would not be dragged into hostilities if Iran refrains
from retaliating against American targets in the event of an Israeli strike –
The New York Times published an article based on a leak from the White House,
stating that the US plans to take military measures in the Gulf to threaten and
On the same day, White House spokesman James Carney denied
that US-Israel relations were in a crisis and told Iran that while there is
still time for diplomacy, “this window will not remain open
These statements leave the observer confused about Obama’s
The question at the heart of the matter is how much more time
Obama is prepared to give to allow sanctions and diplomacy to work. The
president says the sanctions are working, an assertion that Netanyahu flatly
The problem is that when the two leaders discuss the sanctions
process they refer to two different phases.
The first phase consists of
sanctions that are designed to exert tremendous economic pressure on Iran’s
leaders, while the second phase is the aftermath in which the hardships are
expected to change Iran’s nuclear policy.
When Obama claims that the
sanctions are working, he is referring to the first phase; he believes that
Iranian leaders are feeling severe economic pressure and that continued pressure
will help alleviate the situation.
When Netanyahu mentions failing
sanctions, however, he is referring to the second phase, and believes that
painful sanctions are not going to cause a change in Iranian nuclear
The situation appears a lot more optimistic to Obama than it does
Israel is concerned with the Iranian procrastination in the
negotiations, claiming that Iran talks merely to buy more time to develop the
bomb. Iran and the West have been locked in an impasse, as Iran wants the West
to remove the sanctions, while the West wants Iran to stop enrichment. Neither
side has been willing to budge thus far.
The mistrust between Obama and
Netanyahu does not help. Obama does not like Netanyahu and is fearful of an
Israeli attack before the elections.
Netanyahu is skeptical about Obama’s
policy and is not sure that the president will use force against Iran if
sanctions and diplomacy fail.
This diplomatic row can be solved, but only
when the war of words in the press ceases.
The contradictory statements
serve Iranian interests alone.
Obama’s people are also displeased by
these damaging verbal jabs and are discussing ways to calm Netanyahu and prevent
what they consider a premature Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear
Therefore, Netanyahu must secretly travel to Washington
and meet with Obama. He should ask the president what he intends to do if and
when diplomacy and sanctions fail and Iran continues towards the
Obama and Netanyahu must reach an agreement on the conditions that
would give Israel, the US and the international community a final opportunity to
stop Iran without the use of force. It would be difficult for Israel to attack
alone without first reaching understandings with Washington.
Due to its
superior military capabilities, America’s window of opportunity for striking
Iran is much wider than Israel’s.
Therefore, one of the solutions is to
provide Israel with capabilities it does not currently possess, broadening its
window of opportunity. The US may respond positively to such a
Iranian leaders feel that nuclear weapons would ensure the
survival of their extreme Islamic regime. They may consider a change in their
nuclear policy if they reach the conclusion that the continuing race to the bomb
would endanger their regime.
Only the combination of harsher sanctions,
tough Western positions in future negotiations and the threat of a credible
military strike may bring about a change in the current Iranian nuclear
strategy. Secret negotiations between Obama and Netanyahu and creative solutions
to the Iranian problem can put an end to the foolish dispute between the
When the president and prime minister come to an agreement on a
red line that Iran will not be allowed to cross, they will be able to more
effectively place pressure on Iranian leaders and work towards a solution to the
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is director of the School of Communication at
Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin- Sadat Center
for Strategic Studies, which originally published this analysis.