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Israel and US differ on Iranian nuclear question

Obama is pushing for more dialogue with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme, while Netanyahu has reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself – by pre-emtive strike if necessary.

US President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Monday, March, 5, 2012, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
US President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Monday, March, 5, 2012, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington
Image: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/Press Association Images

US PRESIDENT BARACK Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended two days of public posturing on Iran right where they began: Obama wants Israel to refrain from attacking Iran now, and Netanyahu pointedly refused to make that promise.

Obama never made a direct, public appeal to Israel’s visiting leader, but his message was clear.

“We do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” Obama said Monday before a two-hour meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office.

Netanyahu thanked Obama for acknowledging that Israel will make its own choices.

Later, the hawkish Israeli leader answered some of the US arguments for waiting. Iran is already a menace, and would be a worse one with nuclear weapons, Netanyahu told a friendly crowd of American supporters of Israel. And if you think oil process are high because of the threat of a conflict with Iran, try buying gasoline once oil-rich Iran gets the added confidence of being able to bully the world with a bomb, Netanyahu said.

The ‘cost of not stopping Iran’

“There has been a lot of talk about the cost of stopping Iran,” Netanyahu told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “It is time to talk about the cost of not stopping Iran.”

The Obama administration argues it is premature to talk about attacking Iranian nuclear facilities until it has evidence that Iran has decided to develop a nuclear weapon. Israeli officials say that’s a risky game and many prefer to launch a pre-emptive strike that would cripple Iran’s ability to get to that point.

Republicans have tried to cast Obama as a fair-weather friend to Israel and as weak on Iran.

On Tuesday, GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all addressing AIPAC, the same pro-Israel conference that Netanyahu addressed Monday night.

Israeli leaders say they have not decided whether to attack Iran on their own, but say time is short to make such a strike effective.

Unilateral strike could make Israel less safe

US officials say they do not know what Israel will do either, and they continue to argue that a unilateral Israeli strike could actually make Israel less safe. Although US officials said several hours of closed-door White House meetings produced greater understanding, the bottom line remained a difference of opinion over whether or when to launch a strike.

Israel sees Iran as a mortal enemy that threatens the very existence of the Jewish state. Israel largely rejects the US assessment that Tehran has not decided whether to build a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, Iran denies its fast-moving nuclear development programme is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

Obama and Netanyahu talked about unity with one another, but in their one joint public appearance Monday they were largely talking past one another. They acknowledged that the question of Iran looms over what both described as a close alliance.

Obama knew he would have a tough sell. Israel is impatient with the slow progress of sanctions and diplomacy, and the two nations have differing assessments of when the Iranian threat will become unmanageable by anything other than military means.

‘Israel cannot afford to hope’

Netanyahu later said that while it might be nice to hope that Iran would abandon its disputed nuclear programme on its own, Israel cannot afford to hope. Waiting is a fool’s game, and Iran is stringing the world along, Netanyahu told the audience at AIPAC.

US and Israeli officials said they were satisfied that the other heard and understood their position. Neither claimed any significant change of heart. Israel did not press Obama to spell out US “red lines” that would trigger a military response, US officials said, although there had been public pressure in Israel for that.

Senior Obama administration officials said the talks at the White House left the two sides closer than they were a week ago. The Israelis walked away with prominent statements from Obama that he would not stand for just containing a nuclear-armed Iran, period, and that the crisis was in the United States’ interests to solve.

In turn, Israelis did acknowledge privately they would prefer a diplomatic solution, despite enormous skepticism about the Iranian government, officials said.

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The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.

The United States and Israel differ over how much time they have to let economic sanctions take their toll. They also differ over exactly what Iranian action should trigger a military strike by either nation. They disagree over whether a unilateral strike now could be legitimate under international law. And they differ over the value of a strike that US and even many Israeli experts concede would probably only damage, not eradicate, Iran’s nuclear weapons potential.

“I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically,” Obama offered at the White House. “We understand the costs of any military action.”

‘Israel has the right to make its own decisions’

Netanyahu never said he preferred any such thing. He looked on with a tight smile while Obama spoke to a room of jostling reporters, then addressed his remarks directly to Obama.

His message was simple, and unchanged from the one his government delivered to three delegations of US officials who went to Israel last month to argue patience: Thanks, but no thanks. We’ll figure this out ourselves.

“Israel must have the ability always to defend itself by itself against any threat,” Netanyahu said. “When it comes to Israel’s security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right, to make its own decisions.”

If there was any doubt that he was telling Obama that Israel sees the cost-benefit ratio differently, Netanyahu erased it with a historical reference to Israel’s founding after the Holocaust.

“After all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said, looking Obama in the eye. “To restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. And that’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.”

Read: Obama and Netanyahu to discuss Iran at talks today>

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