Diplomacy: Finding wiggle room in Washington

Netanyahu adopted a very tough posture toward Iran in DC this week, hammering home Israel’s right to defend itself.

By
March 8, 2012 23:28
Netanyahu addresses AIPAC

Netanyahu at AIPAC 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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WASHINGTON – Life, runs that well-worn adage, is a marathon, not a sprint. So too is the effort to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It is a marathon that roughly started back in 1995.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his speech to AIPAC Monday night, said that for the last decade the world has tried to use diplomacy to get Tehran to stop its nuclear march, and that has not worked. He said that for the last six years the international community has imposed sanctions, and that did not work, either.

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But what the prime minister did not say categorically in his speech was that it will not work. And therein exists the room inside which Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama are maneuvering – that space between “has not worked,” and “will not work.”

This gap was also apparent in the different interpretations of the gift Netanyahu brought Obama: an illustrated copy – just two days before Purim – of the Book of Esther.

One does not have to be blessed with remarkable insight to grasp the symbolism of Netanyahu – faced with a Persian leader threatening to destroy Israel – handing the president of the United States a biblical book narrating the Jewish triumph over another Persian tyrant some 2,500 years ago, who had a similar idea.

Or, as Netanyahu now famously said in his speech: “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then what is it? That’s right, it’s a duck.

But this duck is a nuclear duck. And it’s time the world started calling a duck a duck.”

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Yet, spokesmen for the prime minister downplayed the significance of the Megilat Esther gift, saying that just as Netanyahu brought British Prime Minister David Cameron a Passover Haggada when he visited London last year shortly before Passover, so too it was only natural that Netanyahu would give Obama a copy of the book of Esther just before Purim. They took pains not to directly link the gift to the Iranian crisis.

The message the gift was intended to send was, therefore, equivocal: “We brought the Book of Esther to Obama to draw parallels between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Haman,” is a much different message from, “We gave Obama the Book of Esther because we met him just three days before Purim.”

Likewise, Netanyahu provided himself with wiggle room in Washington. “We have the right to attack,” is significantly different from “we will attack.”

Netanyahu carefully crafted his message in a way that still provides room for maneuver, while still containing ambiguity.

Yet, both Netanyahu and Obama managed over the last week – during interviews, press conferences and their respective speeches to AIPAC – to get across some key basic points they wanted to convey.

Obama’s message was threefold: The US “has Israel’s back” (his words) and will take military action as a last resort to keep Iran from going nuclear; Washington does not believe in containment of a nuclear Iran; and there is still a chance for diplomacy and crippling sanctions to get Iran to peacefully abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Netanyahu’s message was also threefold: Iran needs to be at the center of the world’s attention; Israel reserves the right to defend itself as it sees fit, and will do so when it deems it necessary; the cost of a nuclear Iran is far greater than the price of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.

In this fateful marathon to stop Iran, Monday’s meeting in the White House between Netanyahu and Obama was another marker on the way to the finish line. It was not “the marker,” but rather “another marker.”

And that, of course, ran contrary to all the dramatic pre-parley hype, all the characterizations of this meeting as the most fateful of Netanyahu’s long diplomatic and political career. Asked point blank whether he viewed this meeting as such, Netanyahu replied with a simple “no comment.”

There was something even Septemberish about the visit.

Remember last September, and the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, and all the fear and trepidation and drama that generated? There was a similar atmosphere that preceded this visit as well. But there was no “aha” Iranian moment during Netanyahu’s two days in Washington.

The Netanyahu-Obama meeting in the Oval Office was not the one-of-a-kind, D-Day meeting where any key critical milestone was passed.

Israel, according to senior officials, did not demand concrete action from the US; and the US did not warn Israel not to attack.

Neither side came with “the hard ask.” Both sides labored to keep their freedom of maneuverability.

Indeed, Netanyahu said afterward Israel has not yet made a decision to take military action.

The meeting was part of a continuing series of meetings and consultations between the two sides on Iran that has been taking place for months, with a continuous flow of cabinet-level ministers going back and forth, at the rate of about one every two weeks.

No sooner had Netanyahu left Washington – himself arriving just a few days after Defense Minister Ehud Barak had left – then it was announced that Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Benny Gantz was due to arrive within two weeks.

“This was not a meeting of a critical decision point,” US Ambassador Dan Shapiro told The Jerusalem Post at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday after returning from the conference. “Although there was speculation about that in the run-up to the meting,” he added. “This was a meeting that continued what has been extraordinarily close coordination and consultation between the governments, and is going to continue in the days and weeks ahead.”

The Obama-Netanyahu meeting, Shapiro said, “was not an end point to any conversation.”

No, this meeting was another meeting along the continuum – although this time it wasn’t between cabinet-level officials, but the two leaders themselves, something critical from time to time so the leaders understand one another, grasp the other’s thinking, know where the other side is coming from.

As US Speaker of the House, John Boehner said before Netanyahu met Congressional leaders on Tuesday, “The looming threat of nuclear Iran cannot be ignored.

Ambiguity could lead to serious miscalculation, which is what we collectively hope to avoid. It is my sincere preference and belief that the US and Israel need to be clear in its communications with each other, and in our communications with the Iranians.”

According to government officials, with the situation in the region so fluid, it is critical for the president and the prime minister to update each other and have “face time.”

The Iranian nuclear issue is not happening in a vacuum, not isolated, for instance, from the state of the world economy, or events happening in Syria. There is a need to constantly update the conversation because the region is changing – because intelligence information constantly changes.

The situation is not static, and there is a need to periodically evaluate it at the highest level.

That being said, there was no Karine A moment during this visit; no time where Israel placed on the president’s desk incontrovertible evidence that dramatically changed perceptions – as was done in 2002 during a meeting between then prime minister Ariel Sharon and president George W. Bush, where Israel presented intelligence showing that Palestinian arms were coming from Iran, something that fundamentally altered the way the US administration viewed Yasser Arafat.

There was no Karine A moment because the intelligence-sharing between the sides today is at a very high level.

This is also not 2007, when the US National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran stopped its nuclear-weapons program. No, now the US and Israel agree on the intelligence, agree on what Iran is doing.

They also agree – as both Obama and Netanyahu made abundantly clear over the past week – that the end goal must be to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that there can not be any containment of a nuclear Iran.

They also agree that using economic sanctions and diplomacy is everyone’s first preference.

The disagreement stems largely from different perspectives.

The US – because of its size, might and safe distance from Iran – has a different perspective from Israel, which – because of its size, historical experience and proximity to Iran – feels more vulnerable.

Israel is seven hours closer to Iran than Washington, and proximity matters. Israel also does not have the US’s military capabilities, which means its timeline for action is different. Those differences were discussed at length during the visit.

Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror said this clearly this week: “There is a difference between those who are close, and those farther away; and between a great power with great capabilities and a small country. It would be stupid to ignore those differences.”

And those differences – not about objective information, as much as subjective feelings – shape decisions regarding possible action.

Ever since November, when talk about an impending attack on Iran dramatically increased, there has been a sense among many observers that it was all a show, with Netanyahu in the starring role as the “crazy Israeli” to get the world to seriously step up sanctions and prevent those zany, unpredictable Israelis from setting off a major conflagration.

But in Washington this week, Netanyahu’s message was different.

His message was direct: “We are not crazy, but – considering our history – are very concerned and determined. Nothing has worked yet to stop Iran, but we hope it will and will give it more time. Not forever, but at least for a while.”

Or, as he said during the AIPAC speech, “Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We’ve waited for diplomacy to work.

We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.”

Notice that he didn’t say “Israel won’t wait any longer,” but rather “the world cannot afford to wait much longer.”

That difference, while fine, is tremendous.

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