Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to publicly harden his line against Iran during a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on March 5, according to a senior Israeli official.
Israel wants Obama to make further-reaching declarations than the vague assertion that "all options are on the table," the official said. In particular, Netanyahu wants Obama to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain "red lines," said the official; Israel feels this will increase pressure on Iran by making clear that there exists a real U.S. threat.
Officials in both Jerusalem and Washington acknowledge a serious lack of trust between Israel and the United States with regard to the issue of a possible strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. A senior U.S. official who is involved in preparing Netanyahu's visit to the United States - and who asked to remain anonymous - said intensive preparations are underway to guarantee the success of the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama and to bridge this lack of trust.
The White House proposed to the Prime Minister's Office on Tuesday that the two release a joint statement following the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. The goal of the announcement would be to bridge apparent disagreements between the United States and Israel, and to present a single U.S.-Israeli front in order to leverage pressure on Iran. To date, the United States still has not proposed a text for such an announcement.
According to sources, the lack of trust between Israeli and U.S. officials appears to stem from, among other things, a mutual feeling that the other country is interfering in its own internal political affairs. Netanyahu suspects that the U.S. administration is attempting to turn Israeli public opinion against an attack on Iran, say sources.
Meanwhile, they say, the Obama administration suspects Netanyahu is using Congress and the Republican candidates in the presidential race to put pressure on Obama to support such a strike.
Billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Netanyahu's, has contributed tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidate Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign - and this certainly has not helped to increase the trust between Obama and Netanyahu. Gingrich is expected to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference two days after Obama, and one day after Netanyahu. Like the rest of the Republican presidential candidates, Gingrich is expected to attack Obama and claim he is "weak on Iran."
The issue of strengthening U.S. rhetoric against Iran was raised last week by Israeli officials who met with Tom Donilon, the U.S. national security adviser who visited Israel last week. It was also raised by Defense Minister Ehud Barak during his Washington visit, which included a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden yesterday. Other senior Israeli officials - such as Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud ) and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (Likud) - have made similar comments to senior U.S. officials recently.
The problem is not with the number of meetings between Israelis and Americans on the issue, but with the results of those meetings, according to a senior Israeli official who is heavily involved in the dialogue with Americans, but who asked to remain unnamed. "The talks with the Americans are like porcupines having sex: slowly and carefully," he said. "A lot of general statements that they think we want to hear, but we are constantly asking them what's the bottom line? How can the Iranians understand that if they do not stop they will attack in the end?"
The Obama administration's suspicions concerning Netanyahu were further fueled after Netanyahu and his advisers briefed a group of senators and senior congressmen during the past two weeks on the Iranian issue, and asked them to pressure Obama on the matter. Last week, Netanyahu met a group of five senior senators over lunch, headed by Sen. John McCain, who ran four years ago against Obama for president. Netanyahu reportedly told the senators he was not interfering in U.S. politics and expected U.S. officials not to interfere in Israeli politics either.
The topic quickly turned to Iran, according to reports. Netanyahu apparently complained bitterly about certain officials in the Obama administration who spoke out against an Israeli strike on Iran. But between the lines, some suggest that Netanyahu was speaking about Obama himself, as well as the other very senior officials in the administration. He reportedly told the senators that this kind of public discourse serves the Iranians.
Donilon, who was in Israel at the same time as the senators, received the same criticism from Netanyahu and Barak. Donilon reportedly told Netanyahu and Barak that the comments made by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not represent Obama's opinions, and that Obama was unhappy with Dempsey's statements, according to a senior U.S. official involved in the talks. Dempsey reportedly said, "I don't think a wise thing at this moment is for Israel to launch a military attack on Iran," and added that a strike "would be destabilizing" and "not prudent." But Dempsey changed his tone in statements yesterday during a Senate hearing. He said he had not told Israel not to attack Iran, and that the United States has not taken any options off the table.
Netanyahu does not appear to be convinced by Dempsey's backtracking, and considers such reports to be part of a coordinated campaign against an Israeli strike, according to sources. In Netanyahu's view, this is all part of a goal to enlist both Israeli and U.S. public support against such a strike, sources say, and is part of what he considers to be U.S. interference in internal Israeli affairs.
The White House was furious after McCain spoke out after the meeting with Netanyahu, said one source. McCain said, "There should be no daylight between America and Israel in our assessment of the [Iranian] threat. Unfortunately there clearly is some." The Obama administration viewed this as Israeli intervention in U.S. internal political affairs, with Netanyahu briefing McCain and McCain repeating his statements like a parrot, according to a senior U.S. official.
Netanyahu also believes that Obama's scheduled meeting with President Shimon Peres during the upcoming AIPAC conference constitutes an attempt by the United States to interfere in Israel's internal affairs, say sources. Netanyahu's suspicions were apparently heightened by last week's report in Haaretz that Peres will tell Obama that he objects to an Israeli attack on Iran. Since then, the relations between Netanyahu and Peres have been tense. Peres denied the reports, but Netanyahu and his staff do not seem to completely believe his denials. Peres and Netanyahu met on Friday and again yesterday, just as Peres was set to leave for the United States. The two worked hard to show an atmosphere of "business as usual," according to a source.
Peres reportedly updated Netanyahu about what he should say at the AIPAC conference, and it seems that the speech will be much more general and moderate than the original version Peres had planned. Netanyahu is also believed to have asked Peres to emphasize a number of matters in his meeting with Obama in an attempt to maintain a unified front. Whether Peres will do so remains to be seen.