Despite Deep Differences With Obama, Netanyahu Got What He Wanted

Obama reverted to the rhetoric Netanyahu likes to hear, but Israel's ability to influence U.S.-Iranian talks remains limited.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

WASHINGTON – The brief press conference that followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s White House meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama Monday mainly showed that both leaders have grown up.

The two men have a long history of well-publicized spats, derogatory briefings and mutual smears. But in recent months, ever since Obama visited Israel in March, a truce has prevailed. So when the journalists were allowed into the Oval Office after a talk that lasted almost 90 minutes, both men behaved accordingly: no barbs, no criticism, plenty of smiles and mutual praise. At the end, Obama asked Netanyahu, “Are you hungry? I am. Let’s go eat.”

An abyss yawns between Netanyahu’s view of the Iranian issue and Obama’s. For the Israeli premier, Iran is Amalek, the Biblical nation described as the Jews’ bitterest enemy. In addition, he views stopping Iran’s race toward nuclear arms as just a means toward the greater goal of preserving Israel’s status as the Mideast’s only regional power. He has little faith, therefore in dialogue with Iran, preferring sanctions and military force.

Obama, however, is determined to move forward on the diplomatic track. From the day he entered the White House in 2009, he set himself the goal of launching a direct dialogue with the Iranians. He doesn’t view the Iranian issue through the prism of U.S. policy in the Middle East; rather, his goal is to maintain the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and prevent an arms race for the world’s most dangerous weapon. He has no desire to topple the regime of the ayatollahs or to reduce Iran’s influence in other countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Despite the deep differences in their world views and the disagreements that were aired in their closed meeting, Netanyahu left the White House with what he wanted – a renewed threat of American military action against Iran. In recent weeks, due to the warming relations with Iran, Obama has refrained from reiterating his usual pledge that “all options are on the table.” The Iranians saw this as a positive sign. But Monday, to ease Israel’s fears, Obama reverted to the rhetoric Netanyahu likes to hear.

On the sanctions issue, however, Netanyahu was less satisfied. He is demanding that none of the sanctions imposed on Iran be removed until its nuclear program is halted and dismantled. And as if that weren’t enough, he even wants new sanctions to be imposed during the U.S.-Iranian negotiations.

Obama didn’t rush to make any promises. It’s hard to believe that during America’s first direct talks with Iran since 1979, Washington would impose new sanctions. As for existing sanctions, Obama’s stance is that they won’t be eased until the Iranians take significant steps on the nuclear issue. What constitutes significant steps? That’s already a matter of interpretation.

Netanyahu knows that he has a limited ability to influence the American-Iranian talks, so he’s setting the highest price he can and hoping for the best. If he gets half of what he demanded, he’ll be ecstatic.

On Tuesday, in New York, he’ll move from the diplomatic arena to the public relations one. Through his address to the UN General Assembly and the interviews he will give to every possible television station, he will try to mobilize American public opinion against any compromise on the Iranian issue. But here too, Netanyahu’s mission ranges from difficult to impossible.

A CNN survey published on the eve of his meeting with Obama found that three out of four Americans support U.S. negotiations with Iran in an effort to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. Moreover, the UN General Assembly is already last week’s news. Netanyahu has said repeatedly over the last few days that he is coming to spoil the party, but the guests have long since gone home. All that remains for him to do is put away the chairs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at government meeting, September 17, 2103. Credit: Emil Salman