Feature

Israel’s push for a harder line on Iran

The U.S. and Israeli leaders remained at odds over how long to wait for sanctions to weaken Tehran’s will.

What happenedPresident Obama assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a White House summit this week that he would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but the two leaders remained at odds over how long to wait for sanctions to weaken Tehran’s will. Obama reassured Netanyahu that America “will always have Israel’s back,” and for the first time said “containment” of a nuclear Iran was not enough, implying that he would order a U.S. military attack if that were the only way to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb. But he urged the prime minister to hold off from launching an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, to give tough new sanctions and diplomatic efforts more time to work. Behind closed doors, Netanyahu told Obama that Israel hadn’t yet decided whether to strike Iran on its own, reported the Tel Aviv Ha’aretz, but he reiterated Israel’s right to do so.

After meeting with Obama, Netanyahu addressed the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, warning that time was running out to stop Iran. “None of us can afford to wait much longer,” he said. “I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.” In the wake of the tough talk, Iran announced that it would allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into its Parchin military base, where it is suspected of experimenting with nuclear warhead designs. The U.S. and five other countries also announced that long-stalled negotiations with Tehran would resume.

What the editorials saidObama is right to give diplomacy a chance, said The New York Times. A sustained Israeli air campaign would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by a few years, at the expense of a regional war. There’s no guarantee that sanctions and talks will persuade the regime to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But if the mullahs don’t see sense, Obama has made it clear that the U.S., which can inflict more damage on Iran’s facilities, will take military action. “Israel should not doubt this president’s mettle. Neither should Iran.”

But why should Israel trust an unreliable ally like Obama? said the Washington Examiner. Since taking office, he has bullied Netanyahu into reopening negotiations with the Palestinians, and he only approved tough sanctions on Iran under pressure from Congress. Given such behavior, “Netanyahu would be irresponsible to gamble that the U.S. really does have Israel’s back.”

What the columnists saidObama and Netanyahu might be on the same team, said Benny Avni in the New York Post, but they have “yet to synchronize their watches.” By giving negotiations more time, the president hopes to avoid a Mideast war, which could drive up gas prices and halt the economic recovery in the midst of the presidential campaign. But Netanyahu thinks Tehran is just months away from acquiring a nuclear capability, with which it could devastate Israel. Each leader is focused on “a different set of difficulties.”

The Israeli public is with Obama on this one, said Larry Derfner in Salon.com. A new poll finds that 81 percent of Israeli citizens oppose a strike on Iran without U.S. support. “The reason is clear: fear of retaliation.” Two thirds of Israelis think Hezbollah, with its stockpile of 50,000 missiles, would join Iran in striking back at Israel. Unfortunately for the Israeli people, Obama just gave Netanyahu the green light to attack Iran, said Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. He volunteered that Israel had the right “to defend itself, by itself,” and disavowed a less aggressive containment policy toward Iran, even though that policy worked against the Soviet Union. War with Iran now has the “feeling of inevitability.”

War may not be inevitable, but it is now more likely, said Walter Russell Mead in TheAmericanInterest.com. Clearly, Obama hopes that a mutual show of determination by the U.S. and Israel will cause the mullahs to blink. And that remains the only chance that war can be avoided. But the very intensity of the international pressure “may strengthen the hand of those in Iran who believe that nuclear weapons offer the regime its one hope of survival.” In the end, despite all of Obama’s strategic brinkmanship, he may be helping to create “the outcome he most wanted to avoid.”

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