It seems that the timing of U.S. President Barack Obama’s arrival in Israel next Wednesday could not be worse. The political world is roiling, coalition negotiations have taken over every spare minute, precluding serious discussions in Israel’s political-military establishment, and the new government is to be sworn in just two days before the wheels of Air Force 1 touch down at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
But precisely for all these reasons, the visit could not have come at a better time. Obama knows that the Benjamin Netanyahu who greets him on arrival will be a weakened prime minister.
The White House also knows that Netanyahu cannot wait for Obama to get here. He longs for the photo-ops, the press conferences and all the trappings that will make Israelis forget how over the past month he has been tarred and feathered. Obama, who arrives in Israel strengthened after his electoral victory and almost completely free of political exigencies, can take advantage of Netanyahu’s situation to reboot relations between them, reaching agreements that in a different political atmosphere would be unattainable − especially on the Iran issue.
In his interview Thursday on Channel 2, Obama made a supreme effort to let bygones be bygones and show friendship when he called Netanyahu “Bibi” at least 10 times.
Senior American and Israeli officials involved in preparations for the visit said the differences between Washington and Jerusalem over the Iranian nuclear program have narrowed. They have reiterated over the past few days that Obama is undergoing a maturation process regarding the possibility that diplomatic efforts aimed at Iran could fail, and he might have to order a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. According to American officials, the senior U.S. military brass is undergoing a similar process.
Proof that the parties are moving closer could be seen in the Channel 2 interview: Obama used the term “red line,” which Netanyahu is so fond of, although he placed it farther off than the prime minister does. Obama also began defining the Iranian threat as attaining “nuclear capability,” not just attaining its first nuclear bomb.
Obama also made clear that the military option exists, although he preferred not to use it. He said the decision to attack or not was his and his alone, and that Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel − whose dovish positions toward Iran have Netanyahu and his associates worried − agree with him on the Iranian issue.
Where does disagreement still lie? On the key matter of timetables. While Netanyahu has set the deadline for a decision on attacking Iran between April and July, senior American officials have been talking over the past few weeks about the need to decide by the end of 2013. But in Thursday’s interview Obama set an even more distant deadline, saying Iran needs at least a year to attain a nuclear weapon.
“The American clock is big and slow and the Israeli clock is small and fast,” a senior Israeli official said. “We agree on the seriousness of the threat and the intelligence, but Israel is more threatened and has fewer military capabilities. The more time passes, the difference between the clocks could become irrelevant because the whole Iranian nuclear program will be underground and neither we nor the Americans will know what is happening.”
Obama will ask that despite all the doubts, he will be given more diplomatic legroom regarding Iran. Obama’s challenge will be to persuade Netanyahu that he is not bluffing on Iran. In Netanyahu’s current political situation, the task might be a little less difficult.
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