Military strike on Iran: Are Obama and Netanyahu now on the same page?

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have found new 'convergence' on stopping Iran from building a nuclear bomb. But important differences of opinion remain. 

Jason Reed/REUTERS
President Obama shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington Monday.

The United States and Israel appear to be coming closer on the issue of Iran after recent intense consultations, which culminated Monday in the White House meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While the United States and Israel still do not see eye to eye on the likelihood that diplomatic pressure can compel Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions – or when military action might become necessary – several statements by Mr. Obama in recent days have reassured Israelis. 

For example, Obama has unambiguously rejected the strategy of merely containing a nuclear Iran, he has described the issue as a US national security interest and not just an Israeli imperative, and he has emphasized Israel’s right to take full responsibility for its own national security. The statements suggest that the gaps between the US and Israel are not as wide as Israelis had feared.

“When you put these together, it’s a convergence that wasn’t there just a few days ago,” says David Makovsky, an expert in US-Israel relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Studies.

Hints of this “convergence” were evident in the statements the two leaders made at the outset of their White House meeting, as well as from comments from officials who participated in a flurry of high-level meetings between the two countries in the run-up to the Monday tête-à-tête.

But it came out most clearly in Obama’s speech Sunday to the annual national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the prominent pro-Israel organization, and in Mr. Netanyahu’s reaction to the speech.

The Israeli leader is scheduled to address AIPAC at its gala event Monday night.

Obama sought to lay to rest Israeli concerns that the US might settle for containing a nuclear Iran when he reiterated Monday what he told AIPAC Sunday: “Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment,” he said with Netanyahu seated at his side. “I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Obama also made it clear that his rejection of a nuclear-armed Iran is based on his conclusion that such a development would constitute a national security threat to the US, and not just to Israel. An Iranian bomb would prompt others in the Middle East to go nuclear, boosting the threat of a nuclear conflict in one of the world’s most unstable regions.

That is music to Netanyahu’s ears, analysts say. He knows that, in the end, every country acts primarily in its own self interest – and Obama’s statement means the US is more likely to stop Iran from going nuclear than if it were just an Israeli priority.

Still, the narrowing gap does not mean all differences have been bridged. Netanyahu, for example, said this weekend that he still sees diplomacy with Iran as a “trap” Tehran will use to hold world powers hostage while it continues to advance its uranium-enrichment program.

But perhaps the most significant difference – the one that could still make any recent progress almost irrelevant – concerns each country’s timeline for potential military action. Those timelines are based in large part on the “red lines” that each has for Iran: the steps each thinks Iran must not be allowed to take.

Israel, as the less militarily potent of the two allies, has a shorter timeline, Mr. Makovsky notes. “The US, as the superpower, has a longer fuse,” he says.

That is one reason the Israelis are so skeptical of diplomacy. “The Israeli nightmare goes something like, ‘Too early, too early, oops! Too late,' ” he says.

So far, the US and Israel don’t seem to agree on what constitutes “too late.” Obama has been putting the emphasis on stopping Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon.

But on Netanyahu’s timeline, stopping Iran from actually developing a bomb is already too late. Israel – and some of its staunchest allies in the US Congress – want to deny Iran the capability to build a bomb. This means preventing Iran from developing the facilities and the stockpiles of enriched uranium it would need to go nuclear quickly.

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