Barack Obama will be making his first presidential visit to Israel next month primarily in order to tell Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in person to hold off on any military intervention in Iran, it was reported Sunday.
Quoting unnamed Israeli sources, Israel’s Army Radio said the president would indeed seek to host some kind of summit meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and possibly Jordan’s King Abdullah, to try to re-energize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But the key reason for the visit and its timing, the report said, is that Netanyahu cited spring 2013 in his speech to the UN General Assembly last fall as a notable deadline relating to thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive, and the president wants to tell the prime minister face-to-face that the time is not yet ripe for military action. “Obama fears that the prime minister will decide to strike in Iran now, at a time when he is backed by a new government and can set up a new security cabinet in which two reported [ministerial] opponents of military intervention — Dan Meridor and Benny Begin — will no longer be present,” the Army Radio report said. Meridor and Begin both lost their Knesset seats in the January 22 elections.
Obama will reiterate US determination to ensure that Iran does not attain nuclear weapons, and will remind Netanyahu that the US has military “capacities” that Israel does not possess, the report added. New Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that the diplomatic option remained open, but that all other options were also on the table.
“Obama decided to come himself and deliver to Netanyahu the direct message, ‘Don’t strike at Iran. Let me oversee the contacts with Iran as I see fit. If necessary I’ll take action against them. We have capacities that you do not have’,” the radio report said.
Netanyahu told Sunday’s cabinet meeting that the upcoming visit was an important reassertion of the strong US-Israel alliance. He said he and the president, when discussing the trip in a phone call two weeks ago, agreed that it would focus on “Iran’s attempt to attain nuclear weapons, the instability in Syria and its implications for regional security, and efforts to advance the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, told Army Radio that the notion that the Obama visit would be focused primarily on Iran made sense since that was the most urgent regional challenge — “a race against time” — followed by the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria, with the Palestinian issue “the least urgent.” Arad said he did not know whether Obama was coming to say precisely what the unnamed sources were asserting, however.
The radio report said Obama could have discussed Iran and all other issues with Netanyahu in Washington, DC, in early March, when the prime minister is likely to attend the annual policy conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. But the president preferred not to be dealing with Netanyahu amid the AIPAC gathering, the report indicated, where the White House fears that Netanyahu will deliver “an aggressive speech on Iran.”
In interviews last week, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said the Obama visit was a sign of unshakable US-Israel relations and an opportunity for “consultations” on key regional issues, notably including Iran’s nuclear drive, the collapse of the Assad regime, and Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.