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.
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
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
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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.”
provided himself with wiggle room in Washington. “We have the right to attack,”
is significantly different from “we will attack.”
crafted his message in a way that still provides room for maneuver, while still
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
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
There was something even Septemberish about the
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.
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.
said afterward Israel has not yet made a decision to take military
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
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
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
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.
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.
agree that using economic sanctions and diplomacy is everyone’s first
The disagreement stems largely from different
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
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
And those differences – not about objective information, as
much as subjective feelings – shape decisions regarding possible
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.”
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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