Obama, PM trade messages ahead of meeting

Analysis: Like teenagers dating, the two leaders put forward ideas to percolate before their meeting in Washington.

Bibi et Barack (photo credit: Reuters)
Bibi et Barack
(photo credit: Reuters)
Like teenagers dating, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama are sending messages to each other through emissaries before their big rendezvous.
Obama chose Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic monthly, and Netanyahu chose a press conference standing alongside rock-solid ally Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada.
To Goldberg, in an interview that appeared Friday, Obama talked for the first time explicitly about a “military component” in the options that are on the proverbial table in dealing with Iran.
In recent weeks, Israel made clear it would like to see and hear more specificity from the US about those options on the table, to ensure that Iran gets the message.
But at the same time, Obama also warned in his interview of any preemptive Israeli strike at this time, advising Israel to see how things play out.
“But as Israel’s closest friend and ally,” Obama said in that interview, “I do point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.
In that context, our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily.”
By permanently, he said, he meant that Iran gives up its nuclear ambitions, just as South Africa and Libya once gave up their nuclear arms.
In his speech to AIPAC on Sunday, Obama added two points: the first, that Israel is responsible for its own security, and can make its own decisions. And second, that all the bellicose comments about war only help the Iranians, since they hike up oil prices, which assists the Iranians.
For weeks Netanyahu has asked his ministers and advisers not to talk about Iran, but to little avail. Maybe now they will listen to Obama.
The prime minister, speaking at a press conference on Friday just a few hours after Obama’s interview with Goldberg was published, seemed to have that interview in mind after meeting Harper, sending a twin message back to Obama. The first message was that Israel’s top priority is to end the Iranian crisis peacefully.
In light of the atmosphere created over the last few weeks, as if Israel is on the verge of a preemptive attack, Netanyahu seemed to want to tone down the rhetoric by saying at the outset, “I want to assure all of you that everyone would like to see a peaceful solution with Iran abandoning its nuclear program.”
The second message was that Israel was not opposed to the West engaging with Iran, as long as three clear terms are met: Iran closes down the nuclear facility at Qoms, stops all uranium enriching, and removes from its territory all uranium enriched over 3.5 percent.
Up until this time, Israel’s position was that there should be no engagement with Iran until it stopped its nuclear program. First stop, then talk. Netanyahu put some details on that demand, signaling to Obama just prior to the meeting that Israel is not discounting a peaceful solution, but that the world must not be fooled.
Israel’s concern is not that the Iranians will “hit a home run” and in one grand move achieve nuclear capability.
Rather, the concern is that Iran will steal one base at a time, and while the world is busy negotiating, they will have “rounded the bases” and achieved its goal.
Another significant element of Netanyahu’s comments was that they were made in Ottawa, not in Washington.
The reason for this is that the terms Netanyahu laid down have not yet been accepted by Obama. This is now Netanyahu’s policy, but not necessarily Obama’s, and the prime minister wanted to get the terms out there before traveling to Washington, to give them time to percolate, and not to deliver a policy position in the US that might be at odds with that of the president.