For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the greatest achievement of his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday in the White House is the latter's agreement that Israel has the right to take its defense into its own hands.
The U.S. learned from Netanyahu that Israel still has not made a decision to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Israel believes that any attempt to create the impression that Israel has already made the decision to act against Iran serves to make taking such a decision in the future much harder. On Monday night, Channel 2 news in Israel quoted an unnamed American intelligence official as saying that U.S. intelligence services believe that, in principle, Israel has already made the decision to bomb Iran.
A White House official told the New York Times on Monday that the meeting was “friendly, straightforward, and serious,” but it did not resolve basic differences between the two leaders over how to deal with the Iranian threat.
According to Israeli sources, the discussion between Netanyahu and Obama focused on Israel’s right to make that decision for itself. On that point, Israel won the argument.
Another first for this visit is that Netanyahu has finally managed to place Iran at the top of the international agenda. Still, Netanyahu fears that this success may have come too late. Speaking to Obama on Monday, he heard a lot of promises, but not once did he hear, “We’ll attack Iran instead of you.” Netanyahu told Obama that the pressure is mounting and time is running out to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. He told the president that sanctions will not work and that the Iranians only understand the language of military might.
In addition, those who spoke with Netanyahu came to the conclusion that the prime minister believes the Iranians have already taken a principled decision to destroy Israel. In other words, Israel is under existential threat. In that case, the Iranians' threats are not just bluster or an attempt to raise their standing in the Arab world.
With an eye to historical perspective, Netanyahu gave the president a gift with historical significance: a copy of the Scroll of Esther, which is traditionally read publicly by Jews on Purim. Netanyahu described the book’s plot to Obama, relating how certain people in ancient Persia had sought to destroy the Jewish people for no reason, but how the Jews were ultimately saved.
“The U.S. president said publicly that Israel has a right to defend itself, and he confirmed this position in my closed meeting with him,” Netanyahu told reporters following his meeting with Obama on Monday. The prime minister also emphasized that Israel’s position had been well received. “It was a good meeting. I regard as an achievement the fact that Israel has led the world to understand that the Iranian threat is real, and that Iran is now the most discussed topic on the international agenda.”
Monday's meeting at the White House was Netanyahu and Obama’s ninth, and it lasted about two hours. For about three-quarters of the time, the two leaders discussed ways to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The rest of the time was devoted to developments in nearby Middle East countries, mainly Iraq. The other officials present in the room also testify to the meeting’s importance. Netanyahu spent several minutes engaged in private one-on-one conversation with Obama, but at other times the meeting was attended by National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror as well as his American counterpart Tom Donilon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey were also present.
Administration members also stressed to Netanyahu that an attack on Iran would likely wreak havoc. “There is a danger of regional war with thousands of casualties,” they said, even suggesting that such an attack could spark World War III.
An official Israeli source dismissed these remarks as “scare-mongering and psychological warfare meant to prevent Israel from making the decision to attack.”
“Israel is the master of its fate”
This time the sides decided that instead of issuing a joint statement at the end of the meeting, each side would make separate statements at the meeting’s start – without answering questions. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s main message was that Israel must be the master of its own fate.
“When Americans look around the Middle East today,” Netanyahu said, “they see one reliable, stable, faithful ally of the United States, and that’s the democracy of Israel.”
He then turned to Obama and said, “Americans know that Israel and the United States share common values, that we defend common interests, that we face common enemies. Iran’s leaders know that, too. For them, you’re the Great Satan, we’re the Little Satan. For them, we are you and you’re us. And you know something, Mr. President – at least on this last point, I think they’re right. We are you, and you are us. We’re together.”
Once again facing Obama, he said, “[There are.. two longstanding principles of American policy that you reiterated yesterday in your speech – that Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat; and that when it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions. I believe that’s why you appreciate, Mr. President, that Israel must reserve the right to defend itself.”
“And after all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state – to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”
In his own remarks, President Obama said that “This visit obviously comes at a critical time. We are seeing incredible changes that are taking place in the Middle East and in North Africa.”
“As I’ve said repeatedly,” continued Obama, “the bond between our two countries is unbreakable. My personal commitment — a commitment that is consistent with the history of other occupants of this Oval Office — our commitment to the security of Israel is rock solid. And as I’ve said to the prime minister in every single one of our meetings, the United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security.”
“We all know that it’s unacceptable from Israel’s perspective to have a country with a nuclear weapon that has called for the destruction of Israel.”
“But as I emphasized yesterday,” Obama said, “it is profoundly in the United States’ interest as well to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We do not want to see a nuclear arms race in one of the most volatile regions in the world.”
“That’s why we have worked so diligently to set up the most crippling sanctions ever with respect to Iran. We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue, but ultimately the Iranians’ regime has to make a decision to move in that direction, a decision that they have not made thus far.”
Obama, for his part, suggested continued sanctions as leverage to be used against Iran and as an alternative to military action.
“And as I emphasized,” he said, “even as we will continue on the diplomatic front, we will continue to tighten pressure when it comes to sanctions, I reserve all options, and my policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. And as I indicated yesterday in my speech, when I say all options are at the table, I mean it.”
“Having said that, I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. We understand the costs of any military action. And I want to assure both the American people and the Israeli people that we are in constant and close consultation. I think the levels of coordination and consultation between our militaries and our intelligence not just on this issue but on a broad range of issues has been unprecedented. And I intend to make sure that continues during what will be a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.”
On a final note, Obama said, “We appreciate very much the friendship of the Israeli people. You can count on that friendship always being reciprocated from the United States.”
On Monday evening Netanyahu made his second big appearance of the day, delivering a speech to delegates at the AIPAC conference.
12 hours notice
Meanwhile, the German Magazine Der Spiegel reported this week that Israeli sources told Gen. Dempsey that Israel will give the U.S. an advance warning of 12 hours before it attacks Iran. According to the report, this amount of time is enough to give the Americans a heads-up concerning Israel’s intentions, but not enough time for the Americans to thwart the operation.