Israel's defense, political establishments understand Obama's not bluffing on Iran
He has warmed hearts here and gained trust, making up for a sour first impression left during his previous term as president. But despite all the gains, Obama still has to convince Netanyahu on a timetable for attacking Iran, as well as on issues of the West Bank and settlements.
Both the defense and the political establishments in Israel believe U.S. President Barack Obama when he promises he will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even by use of force. Obama is now perceived here as a tough leader who doesn't get queasy when it comes to taking tough measures. In spite of mounting criticism hurled at him with regard to human rights infringements, he is relentless in using unmanned drones to eliminate enemies of the U.S.
Leaders such as these, who prefer issuing operational orders over considering the Geneva Convention, are beloved by those who shape Israel's defense policies. Clearly, they would love to take part in the White House’s forum on operations and strike missions, and would gladly welcome the president to similar forums at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv.
In the U.S. military preparations are now underway for a possible strike against Iran, and this has proved to people here that Obama is reliable. In Israel, the details of the plans against Iran are known. Senior officials say that Obama shares their assessment that a nuclear Iran will lead to an overturn in the balance of power in the region, one that cannot be tolerated. Such a development would pose real threats to vital American interests. Obama, therefore, is preparing a military option while all the while striving for diplomatic negotiations with the Iranians.
But the U.S. and Israel don't agree on everything. The primary sticking point is on the timetable, based on the discrepancies in the two nations' military capabilities, as well as their vulnerability. The window of opportunity in which Israel can do significant damage to Iran is closing – if it isn't shut already. The Americans have vastly superior means and can operate for longer periods. Obama, therefore, is in no hurry and wants to fully exploit diplomatic channels first.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, is concerned that Israel will stall so long that the opportunity will be missed, and at that point circumstances could change and Obama might no longer be able or willing to deliver on his promises. This is the core of their disagreement, which was evident in Obama’s public appearances while in Israel. Israel’s safety margins are considerably narrower, and it takes a lot of hugs and soothing remarks to keep the country quiet while Obama handles things.
Obama’s visit to Israel erased the bad impression he left here during his first term. His supportive speeches are similar to those made in the past by the greatest friends of Israel in Washington: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Obama has impressive rhetorical skills and is able to charm audiences, as he amply demonstrated on his visit. At the official state dinner at President Shimon Peres’ residence, Obama was relaxed, full of humor, easily speaking without the teleprompter used in his official speeches. This was not the sour-faced president, sticking to prepared talking points, who met Netanyahu in the Oval Office on earlier occasions.
One can assume that the public warmth Obama exhibited toward “my friend Bibi” was also evident behind closed doors. Both of these men understand politics and know that the election campaigns are behind them, requiring them to work together from now on. Getting closer on a personal basis makes the relationship easier, as does the increased understanding over Iran.
But this doesn't resolve their fundamental dispute over the West Bank, the occupation or the settlements. Netanyahu, according to close associates, is angry with the settlers who rejected him and supported his rival Naftali Bennett. It is doubtful whether this will make him embrace Obama’s call for peace, liberty and justice for the Palestinians. This is why the president appealed directly to the Israeli public, calling on it to bring about political change from below.