Why Obama and Netanyahu must meet this month

Why Obama and Netanyahu must meet this month

The president is asking the prime minister to trust him to thwart Iran, and therefore to let Israel's window of opportunity for military action close. Whatever their differences, the least Obama can do is make time to give Netanyahu assurances in person

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).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama meet at the White House, May 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama meet at the White House, May 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)

The Iranians must be laughing all the way to the bomb.

Israel and the United States, instead of working shoulder-to-shoulder to thwart Tehran’s nuclear drive, with the clearest understandings on what would necessitate a resort to the last option of a military strike, are diverting their focus to each other’s ostensible failings.

The regime in Tehran is territorially rapacious and ideologically extreme. Quite apart from bidding for a bomb, it is guilty of the relentless mistreatment of its own people and of inciting genocide against Israel. However, rather than concentrating on exposing Iran’s reprehensible actions to international scrutiny, and thereby bolstering support for whatever action may be necessary to curb the regime’s nuclear ambitions, the American and Israeli leaderships currently spend their days trading mutual recriminations. Rather than discrediting Iran, they are discrediting each other.

The American low came two weeks ago, when the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, pronounced that he would not wish to be “complicit” in an Israeli resort to force against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Dempsey could have used neutral language to indicate his dismay at talk of an Israeli military intervention that he regards as unwarranted. He could have said he would not want to be “part” of such an action, or “a partner” in it, or “party” to it, or any number of other formulations.

But he chose — and officials of Dempsey’s stature, in jobs of such acute sensitivity, do not employ loaded, emotive language by accident — to use  “complicit,” a word which carries connotations of criminality and illegality. America’s top soldier, that is, opted not to highlight the illegality of an ongoing program by a murderously irresponsible regime to obtain the most destructive weapon known to mankind. Rather, he reserved his characterization of illegality for a potentially desperate, high-risk, courageous Israeli effort to thwart that program.

The Israeli low came on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained, at a press conference with his Bulgarian counterpart, that “The world tells Israel to wait because there is still time [to thwart Iran by non-military means]. And I ask: Wait for what? Until when? Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

Netanyahu said “the world,” but it was the US — whose Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had two days earlier dismissed the idea of giving Iran an ultimatum on halting its program — that he was accusing of “moral” failure.

The Iranian challenge is more acute for Israel than it is for the US. We are closer and more immediately threatened, and our capacity to inflict substantive military damage on Iran’s nuclear facilities is more limited than that of the US. Our “window of opportunity” to stop Iran thus closes sooner than does America’s.

But this US administration has vowed to stop Iran attaining nuclear weapons. It has argued that an Israeli strike could not destroy the Iranian program but would prompt Iran to rebuild and accelerate its drive to the bomb, and would shatter the sanctions effort. Many wise and experienced Israeli figures share those assessments and muster additional arguments against an Israeli attack.

The Israeli government may not be confident that a second-term President Barack Obama or a first-term president Mitt Romney would actually send in the bombers. It may dispute the American assessment that there would be sufficient time for a US-led coalition to act if Iran made a breakout bid for the bomb. It may feel that a solo Israeli strike is necessitated, now, even though this might merely delay an Iranian bomb — because who knows what else might change if a delay of a year or two can be achieved. But asserting that America’s contrary position is not “moral” is unjustified and counterproductive, the more so when the prime minister has repeatedly acknowledged that the US recognizes Israel’s sovereign right to take the decisions it feels necessary to ensure its security.

The Israeli tactic that has played out over recent months — whereby Israel has worked strenuously to create the impression that it is poised to strike at Iran — galvanized the international community, focused attention on Iran and may have helped intensify sanctions pressure. But it now appears to have been overplayed. Netanyahu may well have deeply wanted to strike at Iran this fall; he may well feel that he was fated to be the prime minister who would save the Jewish nation at this hour. But in addition to the Americans, almost the entire leadership of the Israeli security establishment, past and present, is cautioning against military action at this stage. And now his most important ally, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has long had trouble distinguishing between his own interests and those of the state of Israel, has got cold feet as well.

Commenting on the news that Obama can find no time in his schedule to meet with the prime minister when Netanyahu visits the US later this month, Meir Sheetrit, a garrulous Kadima member of parliament, on Wednesday declared that American-Israeli relations had been plunged into the deepest crisis “in history.” The unflappable former Likud defense minister Moshe Arens observed by way of response that Obama did find time to speak to Netanyahu by telephone, for an hour, on Tuesday evening. “He didn’t hang up the phone… He didn’t tell his secretary not to take calls from the Israeli prime minister… Indeed, he initiated the conversation,” Arens noted dryly.

Sheetrit lurches habitually into hyperbole; that’s what headline-seeking opposition politicians do. But Arens, understandably bent on defusing the issue, is too sanguine.

For Israel to allow that window of military opportunity to close — as the window will, we are told by the security chiefs, sometime in the next few months — is to subcontract the nation’s security to the United States. Doing so may be Israel’s best option. It may prove to be a catastrophic mistake. Whichever is the case, it would require an immense — existential — degree of faith and trust, by Israel, in an ally that has proved supremely steadfast but that ultimately acts according to the balance of a vast array of its interests, not only Israel’s.

The prime minister has said several times that he will not place Israel’s security in the hands of its friends, even the best of them. But ultimately he may conclude that he has to do precisely that. As he agonizes over this most fateful of decisions, phone conversations with the leader of that best of friends are doubtless helpful. But the phone is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.

For the president not to find an hour to meet with the prime minister during his US trip, and for the prime minister not to adjust his schedule as necessary — whether in New York or Washington or anywhere else — would be unforgivable.

Which other meeting on the presidential schedule could possibly take precedence over a tete-a-tete with the prime minister of a major ally whose small country is being threatened with destruction and whom you are imploring to hold his fire and place his nation’s destiny in your hands?

However much they may dislike each other, mistrust each other, privately accuse each other of narrow and unbecoming political machinations, which other meeting on the presidential schedule could possibly take precedence over a tete-a-tete with the prime minister of a major ally whose small country is being threatened with destruction and whom you are imploring to hold his fire and place his nation’s destiny in your hands?

It is surely not beyond the skills of the keepers of the presidential and prime ministerial diaries to find that treasured hour early one morning or late one night — or to apologetically shift or cancel a previously scheduled Obama meet with a world leader whose nation’s demise is not being sought daily by the would-be nuclear Islamists.

A meeting, at this critical juncture, would give leaders who are responsible for the well-being of millions of people the opportunity to explore in person central aspects of the life-and-death decisions they are weighing right now on behalf of those millions.

And crucially too, after the unfortunate, unnecessary exchanges of derogatory rhetoric, an Obama-Netanyahu meeting would send out a clear and important message of US-Israel unity, and coordination, and partnership — a message to Americans, to Israelis, and to the Iranians.

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