Netanyahu holds his tongue, and will have to hold his fire
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Analysis

Netanyahu holds his tongue, and will have to hold his fire

The prime minister is certain there is no diplomatic route, just a blind alley, but he was only too aware there was no convincing the president

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

You’re wrong, I’ll be vindicated, but I know I can’t stop you trying.

Stranger things have happened, I’m not a fool, and you’re damn right you can’t stop me trying.

That was the blunt, unspoken essence of the gracious display staged by President Barack Obama and his guest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday, showcasing a mature but asymmetrical partnership — between a superpower and, however unpalatable for Israel, a supplicant.

The prime minister “is always candid,” Obama vouchsafed just a little wryly at the tail end of his remarks. And one can imagine that Netanyahu was candid indeed behind closed doors, marshaling compelling argument, and evidence, to underpin his public contention that Iran “is committed to Israel’s destruction.”

But ultimately, Netanyahu knew all along that he and Obama would have to agree to disagree, that the president would not be deterred from putting the diplomatic route to the “test,” and that attempting a repeat of his May 2011 Oval Office lecture style (when he told Obama bitterly that Israel’s pre-1967 lines are indefensible) could only be counter-productive. He is certain there is no diplomatic route, only a blind alley, but he held his tongue.

And so Obama — much more familiar with Netanyahu’s thinking, and with Israel’s nuances, after his visit in March — could afford to be magnanimous.

Thus the president promised that economic pressure on Iran would not be lifted lightly, assuring his visitor airily that “anything that we do will require the highest standards of verification in order for us to provide the sort of sanctions relief that I think they are looking for.” And importantly for Netanyahu, he declared that “we take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran” — a threat he had chosen not to issue in the specific Iranian context during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last Tuesday.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

There are those who might see in Obama’s restating of the military option, and his apparent tough line on sanctions, a victory of sorts for Netanyahu. But in truth, anything less would have been a stinging public rejection of Israel’s assessments and orientation.

Netanyahu has no time for Hasan Rouhani’s we’re-no-threat-to-anyone platitudes. He is certain that Tehran is fooling the international community, and that the regime is duplicitously seeking to attain and retain nuclear breakout status — with the means and the material to make a dash for the bomb when it so chooses. That must not be allowed to happen, and so for Netanyahu, as he put it on Monday, “the bottom line, again, is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program.”

Yet for Obama, now at least, there is a modicum of doubt, and a readiness to consider that Iran might just be changing for real. Or a readiness, at least, to play out the diplomatic track.

In what he considers the certain event that Iran proves obdurate and unforthcoming, Netanyahu would like the US to intervene militarily, or failing that, to back Israel in doing so.

But the Israeli option has plainly receded for the time being, since the prime minister can hardly contemplate military action so long as the president is — however frustratingly, even infuriatingly for Netanyahu — engaging with Iran and giving peace a chance. Menachem Begin’s Israel defied and surprised the US in striking Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osiraq in 1981, but it was not the resounding slap in the face that independent Israel action against Iran would be today; Ronald Reagan was not personally invested in trying to resolve the crisis through negotiations at the time.

If, as Netanyahu has always contended, the Iranians are buying time, he has little choice now but to hold his fire and wait things out. In eschewing the bitter public lecture style on Monday, Netanyahu seemed to be acknowledging as much.

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