Commentary Magazine


Obama and Bibi’s Dueling Agendas

President Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this morning, and the looming question is whether Obama was able to convince the Israeli leader to hold off on an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for assurances that the U.S. will take care of the problem militarily if necessary.

Obama was clear during his AIPAC speech yesterday that he won’t hesitate to use force to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, but the near-zero level trust between the president and Netanyahu may make it difficult for the prime minister to take this promise seriously.

At The Daily Beast, Eli Lake reports on the main issue of contention between Obama and Netanyahu: Israel wants to demolish Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon, while the Obama administration has only indicated that it will use force to prevent Iran from obtaining the actual weapon itself:

At issue is that the United States and Israel disagree on what the trigger or “red line” should be for striking Iran’s nuclear program. The Israelis seek to destroy Iran’s ability to manufacture an atomic weapon, whereas President Obama has pledged only to stop Iran from making a weapon.

“The technical assessments are very similar,” Ephraim Asculai, an Israeli nuclear scientist who worked for 40 years at the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, told The Daily Beast last week. “The discrepancies come at the definition of red lines, or the definition of the time when something must be done is considered.”

Asculai added, “The United States does not think the time has come when it must make a decision and must take severe action. There lies the big difference between the United States and Israel; Israel thinks the time is here.”

Israel also has a much smaller window for launching an effective attack on Iran’s nuclear program, because its military capabilities are less extensive than those of the U.S. If Obama is unable to fully convince Netanyahu that he’ll use force at the necessary time, then it becomes far more likely Israel will take unilateral military action – and soon.

The icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu was thrust into the spotlight in the run-up to last year’s AIPAC event, when Netanyahu lectured the president at a joint press conference. This year, the White House skipped the traditional presser, probably in order to avoid a similarly embarrassing spectacle. But we’re sure to get a sense of how successful the meeting was tonight, when Netanyahu gives his major address to AIPAC.