Obama and Netanyahu can still cooperate

Israel’s prime minister and US President Barack Obama share the same ultimate strategic goal – denying nuclear weapons to the ayatollahs in Tehran.

June 3, 2015 22:28
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look out a window. (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY PETE SOUZA)


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Israel’s prime minister and US President Barack Obama share the same ultimate strategic goal – denying nuclear weapons to the ayatollahs in Tehran. The president has repeatedly made this point clear, as has Benjamin Netanyahu.

They drastically differ, however, in their assessments of the deal taking shape with Iran. They hold very different assumptions regarding Iran’s reaction to the deal and behavior in the years to come. These divergences are rooted in fundamental differences in how the two men perceive the world, and as the president himself put it, different political traditions and different orientations. A “politics of hope vs.

politics of fear.” Optimism vs. experienced, risk-averse pessimism. This divergence corresponds with major differences in how vulnerable each country is to a potential Iranian threat, and between their respective lessons from history.

Netanyahu’s prediction is that once an agreement is signed Iran will hide, cheat and lie. It will wait patiently for the best opportunity to break out to a bomb, and do so through the many holes in the agreement. Obama’s belief is that once a diplomatic breakthrough is made, a positive cascade reminiscent of Nixon’s “Opening to China” will occur.

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The two men should both agree, however, that personal disagreements should not stand in the way of where both countries agree and share a vital interest. The responsibility is ultimately theirs to find a way to bridge their differences and build together a strategy that will prepare the partnership for scenarios where neither of their predictions come true.

President Obama as the leader of the larger, stronger state in the alliance, and as the force behind the Iran outreach effort, should initiate an unequivocal, public appeal for Netanyahu’s participation in a well-prepared summit before the June deadline arrives. He should present a strategy for how a bomb will be denied to Iran should his hopeful predictions not come to pass. He should explain how exactly America will counter any of the possible negative scenarios Netanyahu describes. In order to gain the trust of Israelis, that explanation will have to be water-tight and convincing, covering the ability to “snap back” biting sanctions; the credible ability to act militarily to prevent an Iranian breakout; and the commitment to continue to counter Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony via a “dual track” strategy, even after the agreement.

The prime minister would be wise to tone down the rhetoric and focus on the agreement’s actual weak spots.

It wasn’t the agreement that brought Iran to the nuclear threshold – it has been treading that threshold for years, and the agreement doesn’t allow Iran to build a bomb, not now and not 20 years from now. However, the prime minister is right in pointing out how problematic is the signing of an agreement that legitimizes Iranian enrichment of uranium, undermining former United Nations Security Council decisions.

President Obama conceded in his NPR interview that the agreement does little by way of preventing Iran from reaching “zero breakout” time a decade on.

Netanyahu should call off the offensive against the White House and reach the summit with clear, constructive propositions on how to improve the deal based on the principles presented by Vice President Joe Biden in his April 30 speech at the Washington Institute (cutoff of fissile material; phased sanctions relief; one-year breakout; and verifiable assurances of a peaceful program).

An outcome of the summit should be a bilateral “side agreement” that includes written understandings and a security compensation package to mitigate the risks stemming from the agreement. There should also be mention of what both countries do if the prime minister’s pessimistic assumptions indeed prove well-founded.

That level of intimacy and coordination will bear dividends with regard to other shared interests in the Middle East. The trudging campaign against Islamic State, the collapse of Syria, Libya and Yemen, a possible UNSC vote against Israel, the prospect of further rounds of fighting with Hezbollah and with Hamas in Gaza, or the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel – all issues that correspond with the most difficult, challenging question of Iran’s role in the Middle East.

America and Israel do not have the privilege of sparring and squabbling when faced with a common adversary that is engaged in a systematic effort to go nuclear. Iran’s striving for hegemony and involvement in nefarious activities are causing instability throughout the Middle East, affecting the lives of millions.

Iran’s actions must be countered by an effective, long-term strategy. History will not be forgiving to leaders who, due to lack of personal chemistry and the will to engage with one another, fail to produce one for their peoples.

The writer is director of the Institute for National Security Studies and Israel’s former chief of defense intelligence.

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