Israel sees more US 'understanding' on Iran's nukes

Defense Secretary Robert Gates reassured Israelis that the offer to talk to Tehran isn't open-ended, but some caution that Obama's basic policy on the issue has not changed.

Jim Watson/AP
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, shares a laugh with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, during a luncheon in Jerusalem Monday. Israel dug in its heels in a disagreement with the United States over a potential military strike to thwart Iran's progress toward a possible nuclear weapon, as the visiting American defense chief urged patience.

In Jerusalem on Monday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates assured anxious Israeli officials that the window for dialogue on Tehran's nuclear program isn't open-ended.

"The president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of a response [from Iran] this fall, perhaps by the time of the UN General Assembly [in September]," said Secretary Gates in a joint press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak.

The Obama administration from the start signaled its strong interest in a dialog with Tehran, and has reiterated that position – albeit in more muted tones – despite mass protests over Iran's disputed June 12 election. But Gates's comments have been interpreted by analysts and officials here as evidence of a growing US-Israeli understanding on confronting Tehran.

"Despite the differences over the settlements with Obama, the postelection upheavals in Iran and Khameni's more radical image have brought Washington and Jerusalem closer together on the issue of Iran," says Meir Javedanfar, coauthor of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran. "This has helped Jerusalem's cause that the threat posed by the Iranian regime needs to be addressed."

Parade of Obama administration officials

Gates is one of three senior US officials visiting Israel this week amid simmering tensions between the allies over Arab-Israeli talks. While President Obama has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a key priority of his Middle East agenda, Israel has sought to persuade the US that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose the most urgent threat to the region. Its leaders have argued that engaging Iran in talks would buy Tehran more time to develop a nuclear weapon – a fear Obama sought to quiet when he hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in May.

"We're not going to create a situation in which talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds," he said at the time, indicating that the US would take stock of diplomatic efforts by the end of the year.

Now, that timeline appears to have been moved up to September.

"I think the administration understands more strongly that it will not be easy to have this dialogue in Iran, and it might probably fail, says Shlomo Brom, a fellow at the Tel Aviv University Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the army's strategic planning division.

Despite the close strategic cooperation between the two allies, he added, "There were some Israeli concerns that the US could let the dialogue continue with Iran indefinitely."

Israel would like to see the international community exercise pressure for sanctions, but has kept the military option firmly on the table. At the joint press conference Monday, Barak insisted that Israel retains the right to act independently to defend itself.

"We prefer to get the tools and the support but to execute ... the defense of Israel by ourselves," he said. "We aren't blind to the fact that our actions influence neighbors and others. Ultimately we're committed to the national security interest of Israel."

Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and a current adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, says Israel's position has gained more understanding from US officials. "The mutual comprehension of the US and Israel on the nuclear issue is becoming closer than ever," he says.

But Stephen Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the recent opinion piece, "Why Israel Won't Attack Iran," cautions that talk of a US shift on Iran is premature. The September target for an Iranian response is pegged to crafting an international statement on Iran at the upcoming G-20 meeting, not necessarily to a more sympathetic reading of Israel's approach to the issue, he said.

"I'd say that's a little more wishful thinking than actual reality," says Dr. Cook. "It complicates the administration's intentions to engage with Iran, but thus far I haven't heard a single administration official back away from that policy, either on the record or off the record."

Mitchell paves the way for Arab-Israeli talks

Gates's six-hour stopover in Israel came a day after US Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived to discuss restarting peace talks and a day before National Security Adviser James Jones is scheduled to visit.

Relying on Mitchell as the point person, the US is hoping to convince Israel to rein in Jewish settlement expansion while prodding Arab countries to make a gesture toward normalization of ties with Israel.

The settlement dispute escalated again last week as Netanyahu drew a red line on the settlement issue, insisting in public that Israel would not restrict building in East Jerusalem – a part of the West Bank that Israel annexed after the 1967 war as part of its capital.

Though both Gates and Mitchell have emphasized Washington's commitment to Israel's security on their respective visits, the Barak-Mitchell remarks to the press were shorter and less detailed.

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