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JFNA/JCPA/IAN Briefing: Implications of the Obama-Netanyahu Meeting
March 7, 2012


Israel is taking a more aggressive stance on attacking Iran following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama's White House meeting on Monday.

“When push comes to shove, Netanyahu wants to make sure that Israel operates on an Israeli timetable and chances of an Israeli strike now seem more likely than I thought a week ago," David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Project of Middle East Peace at the Washington Institute, said in a teleconference yesterday with Ha'aretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn. "There has been no change in the fact that Obama is focusing on [Iranian] weaponry and Netanyahu is focusing on capability.”

However, there has been a clear shift in terms of support from the United States, Benn said. “When the question moved from whether to attack, to when to attack, that signals to me a change in the American tone.”

Benn and Makovsky spoke to over 200 people on the call, organized by The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, together with the Israel Action Network, an initiative of the JFNA in partnership with the JCPA. The discussion examined the implications of the pivotal White House meeting which brought the two leaders closer together, but did not close the gap on the subject of attacking Iran, Makovsky concluded.

In fact, Benn warned against expecting U.S. military action anytime soon. “The key difference is that this is a presidential election year and President Obama is not going to bomb Iran before the election. But Netanyahu lives in a different sphere. It’s the best time for an Israeli leader to launch an attack because even if Israel goes it alone, President Obama has made it clear that he is in no position to tell Israel they are in the wrong; if Tel Aviv is attacked, the United States will come to the rescue, I have no doubt about that.”

The call, hosted by Dr. Conrad Giles, Chair of the JCPA, along with Saby Behar, JFNA’s Israel and Overseas Committee Chair, also highlighted that this concern is critical for both countries. “Now its Iran, Iran, Iran, and Palestinians were barely mentioned. That in itself is a major diplomatic coup for Netanyahu,” Benn said.

Their meeting also recognized the President’s rejection of containment as confirmation of the fact that a nuclear Iran poses a serious threat to U.S. national interests. Unlike the Cold War, there are no “red phones” or lines of communication with Iran to defuse the tension, Makovsky said.

But it’s not an entirely grim outlook, either. “Here’s the good news; I think there is greater convergence than we had last week,” Makovsky said. “You have the President of the United States making key points in The Atlantic interview and in his speech on Sunday at AIPAC, where he talked of the importance of stopping Iran as an American national interest and how dangerous the world would be with an Iranian bomb.”
Makovsky also said that Obama has made it explicitly clear that “all options are on the table, including military contingencies,” with Netanyahu maintaining an equally unambiguous stand.

Benn added, “Netanyahu said time is running out and sanctions didn’t work, diplomacy didn’t work and we can’t wait forever. He never said this before; that is why I think this rhetoric should be taken seriously."

Ultimately, “Israel has to be the master of its own fate,” Makovsky said. And while Netanyahu would welcome a U.S. attack on Iran, he won’t necessarily wait for one, either. “He emphasized this throughout the trip. He wants, I think, a strike this year.”

And should such decisive action be taken, expect Israelis to stand behind their leader. “If the Israeli government is determined to go to war and frames it as self-defense, the vast majority of the Israeli public would support it,” Benn said.

As would the U.S, for while the administration wouldn’t “have Congressional support for an attack, they might say ‘we recognize Israel’s right’,” Makovsky said -- even if it is not done in coordination. The United States “will not allow this to turn into a full-blown escalation and [the U.S.] won’t allow that to occur to our Arab or Israeli allies.” 

We still don’t yet know if or when Israel or the United States will attack Iran, but we do know that both leaders view it as a matter of the utmost concern. “Netanyahu made an Auschwitz reference after meeting Obama in Washington and then asserted his right to act,” Benn said. “He can’t possibly allow it to happen under his watch. How would Netanyahu see himself in the eyes of history? As the guy who let it happen under his watch? How could he?”

For a full recording of the call, click here.



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