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After Eliot Engel and Jerrold Nadler, two Democratic congressmen from New York, met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last month, Engel’s wife summed it up:
“They talked about Iran, and then they talked about Iran, and then they talked about Iran,” Pat Engel said of the Feb. 20 meeting, which lasted roughly an hour and included additional participants including both lawmakers’ wives. “Did I mention that they talked about Iran?”
How to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program is now the dominant issue in the Israel-U.S. alliance as Netanyahu and President Barack Obama -- two men with a history of frosty relations -- prepare to meet at the White House on March 5.
“It’s like a psychological showdown when Netanyahu comes to Washington,” said Shlomo Brom, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Their closed-door talks will cap weeks of indirect messaging via emissaries and public positioning, including a speech March 4 by Obama before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, the biggest pro-Israel organization in the U.S. Netanyahu, who is stopping in Canada on his way to the U.S., speaks to AIPAC on March 5 after his talks with Obama.
Obama, in an interview published today in the Atlantic magazine, said Iran can’t be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon and the U.S. will do what’s necessary.
“I don’t bluff,” Obama said of a U.S. willingness to use military action if needed. “I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are.”
Obama told the Atlantic that his relationship with Netanyahu is “very functional” and expressed frustration that critics still question his support for Israel. “Why is it that, despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they’ve had over the last three years, that there are still questions about that?” he said.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev declined to respond immediately to Obama’s comments.
The White House meeting and AIPAC speeches coincide with growing concerns about Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities.
The U.S. and the European Union tightened economic sanctions following a Nov. 8, 2011, report by United Nations inspectors that Iran’s nuclear research program may include pursuing the capability to build a nuclear weapon. It said there was evidence Iran was working on a design to fit on a missile capable of reaching Israel and Europe. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical research.
Israeli leaders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have said that time is running out for a military strike to succeed in derailing the program. U.S. officials say there is still time to let sanctions work before resorting to military action.
Iran has nuclear facilities at Natanz and Fordo that were built to withstand air attacks. It now produces almost 31 pounds (14 kilograms) of 20 percent-enriched uranium a month, compared with almost nine pounds (four kilograms) in November, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Feb. 24.
Iran may be able to stockpile enough enriched uranium to make two nuclear devices if it decides to continue enriching to weapons-grade, according to Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former IAEA chief inspector.
Obama said at a fundraiser in New York last night that the U.S. has a “sacrosanct commitment” to Israel’s security.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Jewish Republican from Virginia who is critical of Obama, said the president should use his speech at AIPAC to set out “red lines” that would prompt the U.S. to initiate or support for military action. “What we need is more clarity from the administration,” Cantor said.
That’s unlikely, said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center in Washington. It is “not serious to believe that the United States is going to publicly define its red lines at this time.”
That topic is “crucial,” however, for Obama and Netanyahu to discuss in private, Makovsky said.
“The U.S. making clear to Israel what are the thresholds that would trigger a U.S. intervention could really reshape the debate in Israel about whether Israel should strike out alone,” he said.
Netanyahu’s visit comes as Israel’s economy probably expanded at a rate of 4.8 percent in 2011, according to the International Monetary Fund, compared with 1.7 percent for the U.S., according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
The Bloomberg Riskless Return Ranking showed the Tel Aviv TA-25 Index (TA-25) returned 7.6 percent in the 10 years ended Feb. 17, after adjusting for volatility, the highest of 24 developed- nation benchmark indexes, even as the country has faced threats of violence.
Oil prices have increased 8.3 percent this year, partly because of prospects of military action involving Iran, which might disrupt Gulf oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.
Brom, a retired general and former head of the Israeli army’s strategic planning branch who is now at Tel Aviv University, said Israel is “very seriously considering taking military action.” Obama must convince Israel that the U.S. is “serious about getting tougher” on Iran, he said, and “there’s a difference between demonstrating ‘seriousness’ and a commitment that the U.S. going to take military action.”
Dennis Ross, Obama’s former Iran policy adviser and a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the distance between Israel and the U.S. is overstated.
“I don’t think there are these big gaps between the two sides,” Ross said. “There’s agreement on objectives. I think there’s even agreement on preferred means. I think there’s a question of how much time you give diplomacy to work.”
Next week’s events also serve as an opportunity for Obama, 50, and Netanyahu, 62, to repair their personal relationship.
They have been at odds since the start of Obama’s presidency. Soon after taking office, Obama pushed Israel to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas to restart peace talks. Netanyahu has been approving more.
Last November, journalists at a G-20 meeting in France overheard a conversation between Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in which Obama acknowledged Sarkozy’s dislike for Netanyahu by saying, “I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
“There’s very little trust and there’s a lot of suspicion” between Obama and Netanyahu, said Aaron David Miller, a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and a former Mideast peace negotiator. “The subtext of this relationship is a broken and dysfunctional one.”
Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said Netanyahu will seek “strong expressions of support” from Canada, where he stops before he visits Washington.
“The whole situation is fraught with escalatory risk,” Hampson said, likening it to “a Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.”
How Obama and Netanyahu communicate through the AIPAC conference and at their White House meeting may signal to Iran the degree to which the U.S. and Israel are working together.
Senator John McCain, who met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem last month, said the Israeli prime minister was “very, very upset” with the Obama administration.
McCain’s meeting came after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, said on CNN on Feb. 19 that “it’s not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran,” that Iran “has not decided” to weaponize its nuclear capability and that Iran’s regime is “a rational actor.”
McCain, an Arizona Republican, said he shared Netanyahu’s frustrations because “the best way to encourage continued Iranian nuclear buildup is to create public perceptions of a split between the U.S. and Israel.”
McCain said he hopes Obama and Netanyahu, in their private discussions, can agree on red lines such as levels of uranium enrichment by Iran that are unacceptable and other benchmarks for weapons assembly or increased capability.
Jon Alterman, director of the Mideast Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy institute in Washington, said while both leaders have a policy interest in moving closer together, “I just wonder if either politician, as elections draw closer, feels comfortable to expose himself to the other. I don’t see either one of them going out of his way to make life easier for the other.”
In the weeks leading up to Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S., dozens of Obama administration officials, U.S. lawmakers from both political parties and leaders of American Jewish organizations have flown to Israel to meet with Netanyahu and other officials. Likewise, top Israeli officials have visited Washington.
Antony Blinken, national security adviser to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, told participants at an Israel Policy Forum briefing in New York on Feb. 27 that Israel would make “its own decisions” regarding Iran, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Blinken said the U.S. does not tell its “allies and partners what to do when it comes to their own national security.”
The U.S. Air Force chief of staff, General Norton Schwartz, said Feb. 29 that the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs have prepared military options to strike Iranian nuclear sites in the event of a conflict.
Tensions between Obama and Netanyahu haven’t prevented cooperation. Intelligence is shared. Obama opposed a Palestinian bid for statehood through the United Nations, and the U.S. authorized the sale of 5,000-pound (2,268-kilogram) bunker- buster bombs to Israel in 2009 and funds for its Iron Dome missile defense system.
Nathan Diament, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, met with Netanyahu and other political and military officials last month on a visit to Israel with roughly 100 leaders of American Jewish organizations.
“What you hear from government officials on both sides, in public and private conversations, is that the two governments are constantly communicating and coordinating.”
Diament said what he hopes to see next week is “a clear message” to Iranians “that they will not drive a wedge between Israel and the United States, and the western community generally.”
AIPAC will also hear from candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Michigan Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Obama won in 2008 with 78 percent support from Jewish voters, according to national exit polls. By portraying Obama as anti-Israel, Republicans aim to cut into that majority.
There’s “a lot of doubt within the American-Jewish community about this president,” Cantor said. “There’s a real prospect now that this president will suffer at the polls.”
McCain said while he wished that were true, he’s less convinced because Jewish-American voters still tend to favor Democrats on domestic issues and “the Jewish vote, as it was in 2008, cares more about domestic issues than national security.”
“I guarantee you it will be a charm offensive while he’s here,” McCain said of Obama’s rhetoric during Netanyahu’s visit. “They don’t want to alienate a large bloc of Jewish voters.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at firstname.lastname@example.org