ANALYSIS / Israel gives Obama until end of year on Iran
Netanyahu and Obama divided on Palestinian state, as Israeli PM refuses to say 'two states.'
Barack Obama's first innovation in the White House is visible even before one enters the Oval Office: a large wooden slide on the lawn for the president's daughters. In the office, Obama put two statues, of former president Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. This is his message - a commitment to liberty, human rights, equality and opportunity. But also to the use of power, when there is no other choice.
Obama speaks much more than his predecessor, George W. Bush. He smiles less. When Benjamin Netanyahu spoke, Obama watched him closely. They both prepared note cards before the meeting. Obama's contained long, typed lines; Netanyahu's had short lines in felt-tip pen.
Their meeting proceeded according to expectations. The president displayed reserved friendship, covering over the deep differences between the two leaders' positions. As expected, Netanyahu described the meeting as "very good and friendly," while Obama praised the prime minster publicly for his political skills and awareness of history, saying he believed Netanyahu would make "strategic decisions for Israel's security" during his term.
What about content? The meeting focused on Iran, the Palestinians and the link between them. Netanyahu said they reached complete understanding on the goal regarding Iran - "to prevent Iran from developing a military nuclear capability." Obama promised him that if the diplomatic effort fails to get results by the end of the year, the U.S. will reevaluate the situation and perhaps impose tougher sanctions. He also said that all options are on the table.
Netanyahu said that Israel has the right to defend itself. He did not spare Obama a description of Jewish suffering throughout history and spoke of his commitment to preserving Israel and the Jewish nation.
Netanyahu said he hopes "Obama will succeed" in his talks with Iran, but this is a diplomatic phrase. It is doubtful that he believes the Iranians will suddenly become nice and give up their nuclear program just because Obama talks with them.
In practice, this means that Netanyahu agreed to give Obama until the end of the year. Then, if Iran's nuclear program is still proceeding, Israel will consider "other options."
Netanyahu spoke about preventing Iran from getting "military nuclear capability," leaving open the possibility of it retaining a civilian nuclear capability. That opens a crack to a possible deal between the U.S. and Tehran.
The differences on the Palestinian issue remain. Obama wants a Palestinian state, Netanyahu refuses to say "two states." He prefers to speak about how to prevent the Palestinians from establishing a second Gaza in the West Bank, requiring them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and security arrangements. Obama said the settlements must stop, Netanyahu replied by demanding Palestinian "reciprocity."
Obama intends to launch a new American peace plan in his speech in Cairo on June 4. It will no doubt contain all the elements Netanyahu is uncomfortable with - two states, halting settlement construction and removing outposts.