Obama unveils credible threat against Iran: Israel

The US president's visit is not meant to hold Israel back.

March 21, 2013 20:45
4 minute read.
Obama speaking at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, March 21, 2013.

Obama speaking at the Jerusalem Int'l Convention Center 390. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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On the surface, the words seem almost banal: Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.

Upon first hearing, once could be excused for thinking this is merely stating the obvious, that all independent, sovereign states possess that inalienable right to self-defense.

Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit to Israel

Isn’t that what sovereignty is all about.

But still. This was a line prime minister Ariel Sharon made sure was included in the famous letter from then-US president George W. Bush that preceded the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and it is a line that Binyamin Netanyahu repeated time and time again on Wednesday at the his public appearances with US President Barack Obama.

“Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat,” Netanyahu said at the airport following Obama’s speech upon landing, where the latter said, “Today the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sara are fulfilling the dream of the ages – to be masters of their own fate in their own sovereign state.”

Netanyahu said it again at the start of his press conference with Obama following the first round of their meetings. In fact, the prime minister mentioned Israel’s right to independently defend itself during the press conference no fewer than three times, with the most significant reference at the beginning.

“Notwithstanding our joint efforts and your great success in mobilizing the international community, diplomacy and sanctions so far have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “And as you know, my view is that in order to stop Iran’s nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and sanctions must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action. In this regard, Mr.

President, I want to thank you once again for always making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

For months, in fact even years going back to at least January 2011, Netanyahu has said that sanctions on Iran will only work if coupled with a “credible military option.” The reasoning was that only if Iran had a dagger over its head would it use the sanctions and political isolation to back down. In recent weeks he stepped up the drumbeat of that mantra, saying this line almost every time he made public comments on Iran, although never spelling out exactly what he considered to be that credible military threat.

Over the first two days of Obama’s visit that threat emerged: It is Israel itself.

Speculation has been rife for years that the US is holding Israel back when it comes to Iran. Indeed, prior to Obama’s trip there was speculation that one of the main purposes of his journey was to hold a bright red stop light up to Netanyahu.

No one – including the Iranians – knows what Obama and Netanyahu said to each other privately. Publicly, however, restraining Israel has not been Obama’s message.

Indeed, the opposite is true – and these are the words the Iranians are hearing as well.

“I think that what Bibi alluded to, which is absolutely correct, is each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action, and Israel is differently situated than the United States,” Obama said at Wednesday’s press conference. “And I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country, any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.”

The most solemn responsibility of a leader, he said, is the security of his people. “That’s job number one. My job as president of the United States, first and foremost, is to keep the American people safe. Bibi, as prime minister, your first task is to keep the people of Israel safe. And Israel’s security needs are truly unique, as I’ve seen myself.”

During the past four years, Netanyahu’s efforts regarding Iran were twofold: raising the issue to the top of the international agenda, and creating a credible Israeli military option. Actually, these two efforts were interconnected, because the world put the issue on the agenda, and significantly ratcheted up sanctions on Iran precisely because it felt that Israel posed a serious military threat.

And now Obama comes to town and instead of sheathing that threat, instead of openly warning Israel not to take action, he makes it clear publicly that he recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself by itself against all possible threats. Obama hopes it will not come to that on Iran, he hopes the Iranians will back down. But if they don’t, the credible military threat Netanyahu wants to see waved along with the economic, political and diplomatic pressure already being applied against Iran is no less than Israel itself.

Iran, and the international community, has been warned.

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