While President Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halfway on the volatile issue of Iran during their inaugural meeting in Washington this week, gaps between the two allies on the issue remain wide — and could get wider still as the administration begins dealing with a palate of unattractive policy options.
For the first time Obama provided a rough timeline for his administration’s efforts to open dialogue with a recalcitrant government in Tehran, saying he should know if the outreach is working “by the end of the year.” That’s less than the firm, short timeline Netanyahu wanted but a statement that acknowledged Israeli concerns that time is running out to stop Iran from going nuclear.
With many analysts predicting the summit would generate a AHA clash between the two leaders over Iran, Obama’s new stance “bought them some time,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. But the president only “deferred the crisis with the Israelis [over Iran] and gave himself some wiggle room. And that could come back to haunt him.”
As Iran nears its nuclear goals, the issue of when to pull the plug on dialogue could produce new frictions with an Israeli government that is convinced Iran is trying to run out the clock, he said. “In the end, the president needs an answer to the question Israel will ask: Well, you’ve tried diplomacy, you’ve tried stiffer sanctions, nothing seems to be working,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official and peace process veteran now affiliated with the Wilson Institute. “You made a commitment, so where are we now?”
That could push Israel to the point of deciding it has no choice but to act alone, he said, something that could set the stage for “the worst potential crisis in the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The president was “sensitive to Israel’s concerns on Iran,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). “What’s not clear is what that will mean in the long term. He did say efforts to negotiate won’t be infinite; that’s something the Israelis needed him to understand.”
But with options limited if negotiations don’t work, it isn’t clear the administration will find other policy options an increasingly anxious Israel can live with, other analysts say.
The White House meeting also included unusually blunt presidential language on the perennial irritant of Jewish settlements and more hints about a comprehensive U.S. peace plan that is still being crafted but which could be unveiled in increments in a series of meetings between Obama and regional leaders, culminating in his long-awaited speech aimed at the Islamic world, now scheduled for early June in Egypt.
At their joint press conference, Obama said, “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That’s a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it’s an important one and it has to be addressed.”
His predecessors also expressed strong concerns about settlements, but generally focused on settlement “expansion” or the removal of illegal outposts.
Obama’s choice of words was a “significant shot across the bow,” said Walker. “It put President Obama clearly out front on the issue.”
At a session with Israeli reporters, Netanyahu said the president outlined portions of the emerging U.S. peace initiative, which will begin with efforts to enlist Arab and Muslim states to provide tangible rewards in return for Israeli confidence building measures.
At their joint press conference, Netanyahu seemed to echo that approach when he said his government wants to “widen the circle of peace to include others in the Arab world.”
While previous presidents have promised quick peace process action — President George W. Bush said a deal for Palestinian statehood would occur well before the end of his term — pro-peace process activists claim this president means it.
“The signals were very clear — the prime minister continued to talk first about Iran, the president pushed back and said that in order to make progress on Iran, you have to push forward on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, the pro-peace process political action committee and lobby group.
Support for serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and opposition to settlements have been “consistent US policy for years,” Ben-Ami said. “What may be different now: talk for talk’s sake is not what this president and his team have in mind. They don’t see talking as progress; they want to see action.”
Still, dramatic action on the Israeli-Palestinian front will be hard to muster as long as the Palestinian leadership remains divided and Gaza remains in the hands of an uncompromising Hamas, most analysts agree, protecting U.S.-Israel relations from new strains.
On the other hand, diverging policy on Iran could produce new diplomatic fissures if the U.S.-Iran dialogue falls flat.
Obama handled the Iran issue “with a lot of skill,” said Ambassador Oded Eran, a longtime Israeli diplomat speaking on a media teleconference organized by the Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “He met most of what Bibi was asking for. He made it clear Iran is a threat not just to Israel but a regional problem.”
Obama’s broad statement that it will be possible to evaluate Iran’s receptivity to dialogue by year’s end “is not far from what the Israelis were saying,” he said.
But Obama did not address how U.S. policy might change if Iran fails to respond, Eran said — an omission that points to the potential for serious friction down the road.
Shaul Bakhash, a leading Iran scholar at George Mason University — and an Iranian exile — said that Iran may want more than the administration can give, including an “easing of sanctions or the lifting of sanctions” as a precondition for serious talks.
“The administration believes any easing of sanctions must come as a result of negotiations,” he said. “In any case, the Iranians have been far less receptive than many expected – in part because they want concrete moves from the US that would be extremely difficult.”
Bakhash said Netanyahu and Obama differ not only on the question of whether or not to engage Iran and for how long, but “in the feeling of urgency. The Netanyahu government has compared the threat to Nazi Germany; I doubt the Obama administration sees it in the same way.”
The crunch could be all the worse because after diplomacy, there are few options that will be both palatable and effective to officials in Washington, Bakhash said.
“Sanctions [on Iran] have been in place for two decades, severe ones for the past 10 years,” he said. “It’s been under those sanctions that Iran has developed its long-range missile capability and its nuclear programs. Even new sanctions on banking are unlikely to change Iran’s policy on fundamental issues.”
That leaves the option of U.S. military action — unlikely to appeal to an administration trying to extricate U.S. forces from two very long and expensive wars — and the possibility of an Israeli strike, which the administration fears would trigger massive retaliation against Israel, an eruption of terrorism worldwide and new complications for U.S. diplomacy across the region.
Despite a conflict over Iran that may have been only deferred, not defused, most Jewish leaders regarded the first official encounter between the two leaders as a success.
“It seems to have gone quite well,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, “certainly better than many skeptics believed. It went well because it began with a sense of shared foundations; U.S.-Israel relations weren’t invented this week, they draw on a deep wellspring of relations. And despite their differences, these are two leaders who have convergent interests.
Still, the meeting was “just the very beginning of the story,” Harris said. “We will know a lot more in the next few months as the pieces of the puzzle become clearer.”