Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington comes at a critical moment, at which US-Israel cooperation has perhaps never been more important. Strategically, a unified American- Israeli approach is critical in preventing Iran from reaching nuclear capability and averting catastrophe. Yet to date, the key relationship between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama has been characterized as tense, and at times strained. In the face of the Iranian nuclear threat, the time has now come for any differences to be put on hold and for Obama to unequivocally demonstrate that his support for Israel goes beyond mere words. Following his speech at the annual AIPAC conference, grave doubts still remain.

One thing, though, is certain. Neither the US nor Israel will allow for anything resembling a repeat of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington only a year ago, when divisions between the two parties were brought sharply into focus. Shortly before Netanyahu arrived, Obama held a press conference at the State Department, during which he stated his support for a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including the abandonment of large settlement blocks. This announcement was made with the sure knowledge that Netanyahu vehemently opposes such a move, having repeatedly described the proposed boundaries as “indefensible borders.”

The prime minister reiterated his position days later during a frank joint press conference at the Oval Office. This awkward exchange at the White House left no doubt over the differences between the two leaders, despite their declarations of friendship.

Adding a further layer of complexity to their relationship, Netanyahu then received enthusiastic standing ovations throughout and after a 40-minute speech to a joint session of Congress. In addition to demonstrating unwavering support for the State of Israel, some interpreted Congress’s love-in with Netanyahu as a rebuttal of Obama’s policy statements on future Israeli-Palestinian talks.

A year later, as Netanyahu embarks on his current Washington visit, all this must now be placed firmly in the past. With intelligence estimates indicating that the coming year will bring a point of no return on Iranian nuclear armament, we have reached the critical juncture in the Obama-Netanyahu term. Considering that Obama will unquestionably find himself fullswing in election mode during the latter half of 2012, Netanyahu’s visit represents possibly the final opportunity for the two leaders to discuss and formulate a joint plan to nix Iran’s atomic ambitions.

There is no question that the United States has recently upped the ante against Iran, by strengthening sanctions. In addition to measures against Iranian financial institutions and companies, Obama ordered a freeze on all Iranian government and bank assets just a few weeks ago. Much of the international community has followed suit by adopting similarly forthright action.

However, there is of course absolutely no guarantee that sanctions, or diplomatic efforts, will halt Iran’s nuclear drive. Israel has indicated that should it be necessary, military action must be an option. Up until this point though, the United States has refused to be quite so candid, sending mixed messages on the viability of an Israeli armed strike, while also refusing to present a similar US plan of military action. In this regard, it was hoped that Obama would make the most of Netanyahu’s visit. With both leaders individually addressing the annual AIPAC conference and meeting in high-level talks, it would appear to be an ideal setting for Obama to seize the moment and publicly announce that a military strike is being prepared, should Iran cross certain red lines. Not only would this send a powerful message to Tehran that a serious US threat exists, but it would also reassure Israel and her supporters that America shares their position.

However, Obama appears to have fallen short of the mark. His speech at AIPAC on Sunday included the usual expected rhetoric, such as his promise that “when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” In reality, though, little was offered with which to genuinely reassure Netanyahu. Obama’s pledge that “I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests” fails to outline what exactly would force America’s military hand, and will likely be interpreted by Tehran as an empty threat.

Obama’s request to give sanctions more time and his rebuke that “there is too much loose talk of war” will only strengthen the Iranian leadership’s belief that time is on their side. Obama’s speech was a far cry from the kind of clear ultimatum needed to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear finish line. With the sands of time slipping away, the Iranian nuclear nightmare creeps ever closer. Yet again, Israel cuts a solitary figure, its military capability the only credible deterrent to Tehran’s march towards nuclear arms.

And still, Obama is failing to grasp what may be the last chance for him to show the world that Israel does not stand alone. Netanyahu’s visit presents a final opportunity to bring Iranian ambitions to heel and in the same breath, to show that the Obama administration is not just Israel’s friend in words, but also a friend in deed.

The writer served as bureau chief to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and is currently a president of 3H Global Enterprise.

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