Public criticism of President Barack Obama's policy toward Iran by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior ministers in his government, both on the record and in background briefings, has left the White House very frustrated.
Senior American officials reject the Israeli criticism, saying that, in contrast to the picture that senior Israeli government officials are trying to paint, Obama is not determined to avoid a confrontation with Iran at any price.
A senior U.S. official who is intimately involved in formulating Obama’s policy on the Iranian issue told Haaretz: “We understand that on the Iranian issue there is public support in Israel for a hard line. We are not looking to avoid a confrontation with Iran… but there is a window where sanctions, new leadership in Iran and international unity give us a chance to solve this thing diplomatically more than any time before. We got our leverage and we want to use it.”
There is not much love these days between Netanyahu’s office and the White House. Suspicion is a key word for both parties. Netanyahu and his people are not persuaded that Obama is truly determined to stop Iran’s nuclear plan, but think he only wants to toss the hot potato to the next president.
A few of the most senior Israeli ministers are pointing a finger at people in what they call Obama’s “inner circle.” Among them are Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes. This group, the senior ministers say, wants to avoid a military conflict with Iran and are seeking an agreement with it at any price.
Obama and his advisers do not understand why senior government officials in Jerusalem want to keep on lambasting the White House over the interim agreement with Iran instead of working to increase coordination and cooperation between Israel and the United States ahead of a final agreement.
The sense at the White House is that Netanyahu and his long arm in Washington, Ambassador Ron Dermer, are encouraging the Republicans in Congress to attack Obama on the Iranian issue and are feeding the American media negative messages about the deal with Iran.
Netanyahu and Obama have held two phone conversations in recent weeks, the first of which lasted one-and-a-half hours and was the longest and perhaps the most difficult since the two leaders first took office. Both conversations were devoted solely to the Iranian nuclear program.
The first conversation was on November 8, during the second round of talks between Iran and the world powers in Geneva, only hours after Netanyahu concluded one of his worst meetings ever with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. After a harsh statement before the cameras at the start of the meeting, Netanyahu entered the VIP lounge at Ben-Gurion International Airport and showered fire and brimstone on Kerry, who was about to leave for Geneva in order to try to advance the signing of the agreement between Iran and the world powers.
Obama, who was informed about the failed meeting between Kerry and Netanyahu, decided to call in order to try to reassure the Israeli prime minister. Senior U.S. and Israeli officials who were informed about the content of the conversation told Haaretz that it was extremely detailed. Netanyahu and Obama spoke about each and every part of the Iranian nuclear project and the agreement being formulated with Iran. From the enrichment facilities in Natanz, to the bunker in Fordow and the reactor in Arak; and from the Iranian money to be freed up to the sanctions to be removed.
“The president told the prime minister that the steps under discussion were worth taking to stop the Iranian nuclear program from further advancing, but Netanyahu kept raising his concerns,” said the senior U.S. official.
The second conversation was last Sunday, November 24, less than 12 hours after Iran and the world powers had completed the third round of negotiations in the middle of the night and announced the interim agreement. That conversation lasted for only half-an-hour. A senior Israeli official who was informed of the details of the conversation said that Obama was apologetic, tried to explain why the interim agreement was not bad and emphasized to Netanyahu that, as far as the United States was concerned, all options, including the military option, were still on the table. Obama asked Netanyahu to lower the tone of his public criticism of the agreement, the official said, and to air the disagreements through diplomatic channels. Netanyahu mainly listened, but was not convinced. He did not promise Obama to refrain from declarations about Iran.
The conversation was not a good one, but not as bad as the one 10 days earlier. A Knesset member who met Netanyahu a few days after the conversation said that he had heard from him that the tension with Obama had not dissipated, though it had lessened slightly. “Netanyahu said that they agreed to start working on the final agreement,” said the MK, who asked that his name be withheld.
Although Obama did not receive a promise from Netanyahu to stop his public attacks, the impression in the White House was that things had calmed down somewhat. “The atmosphere in the second conversation was businesslike,” said a U.S. official. He said that Obama and Netanyahu managed to agree on at least one thing - to convene their advisers as soon as possible for joint discussions about the way forward.
“We understand that Netanyahu will always take a harsh public line on Iran. We told him that our many differences on the first step were preventing us from focusing on the final step. We should not let the disagreements on the interim agreement harm our cooperation over the more important thing. The main event - the comprehensive agreement - is still ahead of us and this is what we need to focus on right now,” the U.S. official added.
The White House does not see the present tension between the two leaders as a crisis. The impression received from talks with senior U.S. officials is that Washington has simply become accustomed to, and has learned to live with, the disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran. They say that, despite the tensions, the two are able to continue to talk to one another frequently and to ensure that their advisers work together. “We had these disagreements before,” said a U.S. official. “It is more the fact that it is in public (now).”
In talks between Obama and Netanyahu, as well as in contacts among senior White House officials and their colleagues in the PMO, the Americans explained that the Israeli prime minister received much of what he wanted in the agreement with Iran - a freeze on the nuclear program for half-a-year during the course of negotiations, a halt to enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent, which was a central issue in Netanyahu’s UN speech a year ago, and a postponement of the date for activating the reactor in Arak. Netanyahu and his staff don’t dismiss the American arguments, but emphasize that “the Iranian nuclear program has still not been rolled back.”
One of the central arguments presented by Netanyahu in his talks with Obama was that additional sanctions against Iran would cause the regime in Tehran to agree to more concessions. Obama was not convinced; he believes that the opposite is true. It is hard to know which of them is right. At the end of the day, the two leaders have different interpretations, based on the same data.
“Unlike Bibi, we are skeptical that there will ever be a time when the Iranian government totally capitulates. Due to the nature of this regime, the thought that they will surrender to the West is a long shot. If, as Netanyahu says, this regime is an apocalyptic and messianic cult, why would they surrender because of more sanctions?” said the U.S. official.
In a few days, National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen will arrive in Washington at the head of a delegation representing all the defense and intelligence bodies. It will be Cohen’s first visit to the White House since assuming the position officially a month ago. The White House would like Cohen to continue the policy of his predecessor, Yaakov Amidror, which was based on political pragmatism, discretion, integrity and a desire for maximum coordination with the United States.
“We are waiting for Yossi Cohen to come to Washington. We want to try and focus on the next six months. It’s important to us to get the Israeli perspective early on in order to feed their concerns into our calculations,” the U.S. official reported.
Some of the misunderstandings between the PMO and the White House regarding Iran stem from the fact that several senior diplomatic-security advisers on both sides have been replaced. Amidror was used to working with Tom Donilon, Susan Rice’s predecessor as U.S. national security adviser, while he didn’t manage to form a close relationship with Rice during the three months that they worked together.We can assume that Cohen will devote at least part of the time in the White House to a private discussion with Rice. It wouldn’t hurt if the two had an intimate dinner over a bottle of wine in one of the Georgetown restaurants in order to get to know each other. Coordination between them in the coming six months will have a decisive influence on the relations between their bosses and on cooperation between Israel and the United States on Iran.
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