Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stepped back a bit from the confrontational tone he had taken earlier this week when he characterized his phone call with President Obama on Tuesday night as a “good conversation.” But lest anyone construe that as the administration giving the Israeli the assurances about Iran that he was looking for, the White House dispatched a “senior administration official” to their favorite newspaper to spill the beans about how not “good” the talk was for the Jewish state.
According to the leak published in the New York Times, Obama did repeat his promise about not letting Iran produce a nuclear weapon. But over the course of what must have been a tense hour on the phone, it appears that the president stiffed Netanyahu on every aspect of the issue. He absolutely refused to set any red lines about Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material. Nor would he set any limits on the amount of time an already failed diplomatic track would be allowed to linger before action was taken.
All of which is to say that the president has outlined a policy goal without giving himself — or Israel — any reasonable means for achieving it. If the position of the United States is that it will do nothing about Iran until the moment when the ayatollahs order their technicians to assemble a weapon from all of the enriched uranium that they have been amassing in the months and years that Obama has wasted on feckless diplomacy and weak, unenforced sanctions, then that is the equivalent of saying that the administration has no interest in actually stopping the threat.
The lengthy ordeal on the phone was necessitated by the outrage in Israel about the president’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu later this month when both men will be in New York for the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The fact that Obama will meet with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi but not Netanyahu speaks volumes about the current state of relations between two nations that even the president is willing to describe as “allies.” Many in Israel had assumed that this meeting would be the occasion of some sort of gesture on Obama’s part to reassure Netanyahu that there was reason to believe that at some point the Americans would concede that diplomacy and sanctions were getting them nowhere and that action of some sort would follow.
But not only was Obama not interested in any such gesture, he was not prepared to tell him this to his face. This snub may stem from the open dislike the two men have for each other, but as I wrote earlier this week, this is about more than personalities. The message from Washington was clear: Israel has no leverage over Obama on this issue even during the presidential campaign and will have even less in a second term.
Netanyahu has been accused of trying to play politics with Obama during the last months of the presidential campaign or of favoring Mitt Romney. But whatever Netanyahu thinks privately, it should be understood that his concern transcends any misgivings about Obama’s penchant for picking fights with Israel during the past four years. If he really thought Romney might win, he would be showing more, not less patience with Obama since presumably Israel would only have a few months to wait before getting a different answer from a more sympathetic White House.
With the most recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency showing that Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges enriching its uranium and that they are now operating in bunkers that are invulnerable to air attack, the Israelis know that there may be very little time before it is too late to do anything about the problem.
President Obama specifically pledged earlier this year during his speech to the annual AIPAC conference that the United States would not seek to contain a nuclear Iran but would prevent it from ever getting that capability. But the longer the president sticks with his current policy of reliance on dead-end diplomacy and sanctions that are doing nothing to halt Iran, it’s becoming clear that sooner or later he will change his mind about containment.
The phone call on Tuesday was intended to calm the storm that had arisen over the New York snub, but the leak to the Times is also a message that no one should mistake. While his surrogates are still trying to reassure wavering Jewish voters that he backs Israel, the administration isn’t interested in doing anything about Iran and the president doesn’t care who knows it.