Netanyahu Signals Determination on Iran, but War Will Have to Wait

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak in the Oval Office of the White House on March 5, 2012

Had he been speaking Hebrew in a dramatic TV broadcast back home, parts of Benjamin Netanyahu’s fire-and-brimstone speech on Monday night might have been mistaken for the words of an Israeli Prime Minister about to launch a fateful war. He painted Iran’s nuclear program as an apocalyptic extermination threat redolent of the Nazi Holocaust, stressed Israel’s power and responsibility to prevent a repeat of the greatest trauma in Jewish history and vowed that “as Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation.”

But Netanyahu was speaking in English, to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington — a forum whose raison d’être is to leverage Israel’s cause in U.S. domestic politics. His purpose there was clearly to rally his considerable bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and beyond to maintain pressure on the Obama Administration to move closer to Israel’s red lines, timelines and perspective for action to stop Iran’s nuclear program. For now, however, the Administration has resisted his pressure.

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“We’ve waited for diplomacy to work,” he told the assembled Israel partisans at AIPAC, which included three-quarters of members of Congress. “We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.”

Netanyahu has taken a similar line since assuming office three years ago. The underlying point on Monday was that, once again, he’s had to agree to wait, however reluctantly, for the sanctions and diplomacy strategy of the Obama Administration to change the game. Netanyahu insisted on Israel’s freedom and responsibility to make its own decisions in response to Iran’s nuclear development, telling the AIPAC crowd, “We deeply appreciate the great alliance between our two countries. But when it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.”

President Obama acknowledged Israel’s right to make its own defense decisions in relation to Iran, but there’s no doubt in any quarter that Israel is reluctant to act alone in starting a potentially disastrous war in the Middle East. And at a tactical level at least, Israel has become isolated by the many months of saber rattling in the form of statements, leaks and military exercises designed to signal that it might launch air strikes on Iran. While key Western European countries have joined Washington in imposing unprecedented, crippling sanctions on Iran, none of them supports a military option right now. Instead, Israel’s closest Western allies — the U.S., France, Britain and Germany — have lately been devoting diplomatic energy to restraining the Israelis from starting a war, which is not a position with which the Israelis are entirely comfortable.

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Netanyahu had hoped to bridge that gap while in Washington by moving Obama closer to Israel’s view. The response was something of a curveball. Obama vowed publicly that he would not tolerate Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon, and would use military force to prevent that event. Israel, however, has insisted that Iran can’t be allowed to have the technological capability to build nuclear weapons — a capability that substantially exists already, even in those parts of the Iranian program under IAEA monitoring and certified as remaining within peaceful boundaries. But having vowed that he would strike if Iran became a nuclear-weapon threat, Obama publicly rebuffed what he called “bluster” and “loose talk of war.” He pointed out that the U.S. and Israel agree that Iran has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons, and demanded more time for the combination of sanctions and diplomatic efforts to dissuade Iran from doing so. A diplomatic solution, said Obama, was in the best interests of Israel and the U.S.

Opinion polls show that only 1 in 5 Israelis supports attacking Iran without U.S. backing, while Israel’s top military and intelligence leaders believe going to war under the present circumstances would be a mistake. Netanyahu, traditionally a risk-averse leader, has never started a war and would be reluctant to ignore the advice of his military chieftains to launch one involving such deep risk, the gains of which may be limited simply to slowing down a potential threat by a couple of years. So having staked out and reiterated their freedom of action — and Washington’s blessing for them to make their own decisions, even if U.S. officials continue to urge Israel to refrain from military action right now — the Israelis are nonetheless more comfortable with Iran’s being tackled by a U.S.-led coalition. Netanyahu will rely on his support in Washington to press the Obama Administration to adopt a tougher stance.

(MORE: Why Netanyahu’s Visit to Discuss Iran Puts Obama in a Political Minefield)

There were the occasionally apocalyptic tones and flashes of demagoguery in his AIPAC speech. For example, he likened those in Washington who now counsel that the consequences of going to war outweigh the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program to those in the 20th century who stood by passively in the face of the Nazi Holocaust. Despite that, Netanyahu also made clear that he had not yet decided to go to war.

According to Israeli reports, the Prime Minister told Obama during their White House meeting earlier in the day that he had not yet decided whether to attack Iran. His purpose in Washington, however, was to press for a tougher line from the U.S. Administration. Even if he believes Iran needs to be bombed in order to prevent a nuclear-weapon threat from emerging there, he’d obviously rather the U.S. did the job with its vastly superior military capabilities. The Israeli Prime Minister doesn’t want to go it alone in starting a war with Iran, even if he threatens that he’ll do so if he deems other options insufficient.

Netanyahu says he can’t wait much longer, but for the Administration’s purpose, the key point is that he’s waiting. A careful read of Netanyahu’s speech, in fact, should reassure oil markets rather than spook them into new spikes on a fear of war.

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Officials privy to Monday’s meeting at the White House told the New York Times that both leaders had agreed to tamp down the overheated Iran debate in their countries. But Netanyahu’s tone and demeanor — particularly his scathing rebuke of some of the concerns raised by Obama Administration officials over the military option — suggest the debate is unlikely to cool down significantly.

It is business as usual, then, despite a visit that was billed as a showdown. The U.S. will continue to press sanctions and diplomacy, while Israel will stand on the sidelines, demonstratively tapping its watch and threatening to scramble the jets. Still, nothing heard publicly from the leaders gathered in Washington this week to discuss Iran suggests that war is any closer than it was last week.