President Obama met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday in an atmosphere of election-year politics and a deepening confrontation with Tehran
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Obama Presses Netanyahu To Resist Strikes On Iran
By MARK LANDLER
With Israel warning of a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, President Obama urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday to give diplomacy and economic sanctions a chance to work before resorting to military action.
The meeting, held in a charged atmosphere of election-year politics and a deepening confrontation with Tehran, was nevertheless “friendly, straightforward, and serious,” a White House official said. But it did not resolve basic differences between the two leaders over how to deal with the Iranian threat.
Mr. Netanyahu, the official said, reiterated that Israel had not made a decision on striking Iran, but he expressed deep skepticism that international pressure would persuade Iran’s leaders to forsake the development of nuclear weapons. Mr. Netanyahu, according to the official, argued that the West should not reopen talks with Iran until it agreed to a verifiable suspension of its uranium enrichment activities — a condition the White House says would doom talks before they began.
Speaking later on Monday to an influential pro-Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Mr. Netanyahu said, “We waited for diplomacy to work; we’ve waited for sanctions to work; none of us can afford to wait much longer.”
Mr. Obama, the official said, had maintained during their Oval Office meeting that the European Union’s impending oil sanctions and the blacklisting of Iran’s central bank could yet force Tehran back to the bargaining table — not necessarily eliminating the nuclear threat but pushing back the timetable for the development of a weapon.
“We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” the president said as Mr. Netanyahu sat next to him before the start of their three hours of talks.
Both leaders agreed to try to tamp down the heated debate about Iran in their countries, officials said. Mr. Obama said the talk of war was driving up oil prices and undermining the effect of the sanctions on Iran. Mr. Netanyahu expressed frustration that statements by American officials about the negative effects of military action could send a message of weakness to Tehran.
Keeping a measured tone may be challenging, however. At the Aipac conference under way in Washington, speakers have delivered fervent calls for tougher action on Iran.
The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, used his speech to lay out conditions under which he would introduce a bill in the Senate authorizing the use of military force against Iran. “We have now reached the point where the current administration’s policies, however well-intentioned, are simply not enough,” the Kentucky Republican said. An Aipac official noted that this idea originated with Mr. McConnell, not with Aipac.
When Mr. Obama spoke to the group on Sunday, he articulated many themes that he and Mr. Netanyahu discussed the following day in their meeting. Despite their sometimes acrimonious relationship over the Middle East peace process, Israeli and American officials said the two leaders were in sync about the need to stop Iran from joining the ranks of nuclear states.
“My policy here is not going to be one of containment,” Mr. Obama said before the meeting on Monday. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.” He added, “When I say all options are on the table, I mean it.”
Mr. Netanyahu, noting that Iran’s leaders vilify the United States as the “Great Satan” and Israel as the “Little Satan,” said there was no difference between the two countries. “We are you, and you are us,” he said. “We are together.”
The prime minister thanked Mr. Obama for affirming, in his speech on Sunday, that “when it comes to security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions.”
An American official said the president was trying to avoid the perception that he was publicly pressuring the Israeli leader, though supporters of Israeli interpreted it as a signal that the United States recognized Israel’s right to make its own decision on military action. Whether Israel could, in fact, carry out an effective strike on Iran without American support is unclear.
“My supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
Israeli officials said they were gratified by the president’s explicit reference to military force as an option, his rejection of a containment policy and his reaffirmation of Israel’s right to make decisions on its national security.
Still, beneath the tableau of shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity, the differences in their views were on display in their statements before the meeting. Mr. Netanyahu said nothing about diplomacy and the sanctions that Mr. Obama has advocated. And while the president repeated his vow that “all options are on the table” to halt Iran’s pursuit of a weapon, he did not explicitly mention military force, as he had on Sunday.
Nor has the president embraced another crucial Israeli demand: that military action come before Iran acquires the capability to manufacture a bomb, as opposed to before it actually builds one. The two men did not close the gap on this issue, the official said, though he added that Mr. Netanyahu did not press Mr. Obama on it.
Mr. Netanyahu also did not push Mr. Obama to lay down sharper “red lines,” or conditions, that would prompt American action, as had been rumored last week, Israeli and American officials said.
Indeed, in his speech to Aipac, Mr. Netanyahu did not speak of preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability, only a nuclear weapon itself. “For the sake of our prosperity, for the sake of security, for the sake of our children, Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.
As he has in previous speeches, Mr. Netanyahu dwelled on the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Tehran, he said, was the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, trying in the past year to murder the Saudi ambassador to Washington. Iran, he said, plotted to destroy the state of Israel “every day, each day, relentlessly.”
Israeli officials seemed most gratified with Mr. Obama’s explicit refusal to follow a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. The president said Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would ignite an arms race in the Middle East, raise the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and allow Iran to behave with impunity in the region.
The mood in the Oval Office was somber and businesslike, as it usually is in meetings between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu. But the chemistry was better than it had been in previous meetings, officials said.
In their last Oval Office encounter, in May 2011, Mr. Netanyahu summarily rejected a proposal by the president to revive moribund peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. With a stone-faced Mr. Obama sitting next to him, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would not pursue a “peace based on illusions.”
This time, the peace process barely figured in the discussions.
-This report was published in The New York Times on 06/03/2012